McALESTER — The Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the state's oldest prison, has seen its inmate population fall to less than half of what it was five years ago as officials move hundreds of the state's most dangerous convicts to private prisons.
The decline has been so steep that some state lawmakers, corrections guards and others wonder if “Big Mac,” as it is called, will become home to only death row and the execution chamber, or if the prison will eventually be closed.
One by one, cell houses have been shuttered, including several in recent years. As of the last weekly count, 574 inmates were at the facility, compared with close to 1,400 in early 2008.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials say there are no plans to close the prison, the state's only one that is solely maximum-security. Some inmates, such as those on death row and with serious mental illnesses, could not be moved to private prisons for legal, public-policy and cost reasons, they say. But the steadily deteriorating facilities raise questions about the prison's future.
In a June 11 statement, the DOC said it plans to keep the penitentiary in operation “for years to come,” although “the goal is to reduce the facility offender population to approximately 600 offenders.” The agency received money in fiscal 2012 to build a new administration building, install a stun fence and move inmates to other facilities. Cell houses were closed because they were “old and not cost-efficient to operate” or posed safety issues, the statement and DOC officials said.
Meanwhile, the state's prison population keeps rising and is at 98 percent of capacity. County jails are overcrowded with inmates who are supposed to be transferred to the state prisons. Tulsa County has sued the state over the issue. Recent efforts at criminal justice reform haven't cut the incarceration rate in Oklahoma, which has the fourth highest in the nation.
At a Board of Corrections meeting Friday, it was revealed a board committee had decided to reopen a penitentiary cell unit that was closed earlier this year, to add back 221 beds. The state also will pay for use of 310 additional beds for medium-security inmates at a private prison in Cushing. But the long-term crowding problem remains. Board member Steve Burrage said the department will need to ask the state for $10 million to $15 million in additional funding by early 2014.
Critics of the decline at McAlester say it represents a refusal by political leaders to invest more in a state-run prison system and to further privatize incarceration. They point to private prison companies' campaign donations to lawmakers and intensive lobbying at the state Capitol.
Sean Wallace, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said staffing levels are so poor in the prison system that even legislators who used to oppose privatization now see few other options.
“We are starting to wonder if there really is a scheme to put the agency in such a bad situation that we have to privatize it.” Wallace said.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, said the corrections department should look at keeping more maximum-security inmates in private prisons.
The penitentiary has “been a lawsuit waiting to happen for many years” because of its aging buildings, Jolley said.
“Obviously, we've been utilizing OSP because of necessity,” he said, adding the older housing units should be shut down, leaving only the unit with death row and disciplinary segregation and the mental heath units.
Jolley said the Legislature should seriously consider building a new state-run maximum-security facility, in McAlester or elsewhere.
Signs of decline
Tour the penitentiary prison today and you'll see many signs of age and abandonment. The closed buildings and prison cells nearly outnumber the open ones.
The facility is tidy. But razor-wire is rusted, floors are stained from leaky roofs and stark white paint peels from building exteriors. The air conditioning has been spotty in recent years. The famous McAlester prison rodeo hasn't been held since 2009; the large arena sits empty.
In 1973, when a massive, deadly riot occurred at the prison, there were more than 2,000 inmates packed into the facility, about double its capacity. They torched and ransacked most of the place.
Afterward, a consultant hired by the state advised that the prison, built in 1908, be torn down and rebuilt.
The demolition and rebuilding of the prison never happened. Rather, the state decided to keep the facility open, although with hundreds of fewer inmates and, until years later, only maximum security. Some buildings were razed, others repaired. New units were added in the 1980s and 1990s.
The inmate population declined after the riot and has never again reached the same levels. But in the 1990s, it rose again to above 1,600. At the same time, private prisons began springing up in Hinton, Holdenville, Cushing, Lawton, Sayre and Watonga, holding medium- and minimum-security inmates.
In 2007, an audit by a private consultant, MGT, criticized the state for reclassifying inmates from maximum to medium security in order to shift them to other prisons. It recommended the state enact a plan to add maximum-security beds at the prison and to keep more such prisoners at private prisons. The plan to add the beds in McAlester never came about.
Late last decade, the Legislature approved a law allowing maximum-security inmates to be held in private prisons. In 2008, 360 went to Holdenville's Davis Correctional Facility, run by Corrections Corp. of America. The number of inmates at the penitentiary began to drop at that point even as the system's total population climbed, corrections department records show.
In 2009, another consultant, the Durrant Group, recommended abandoning all housing units at the McAlester prison except the one containing death row and building new facilities there.
“Savings in the operating costs would offset the increased cost of construction of a new center,” the consultant said.
Some legislators criticized the report because it didn't address in detail use of private prisons.
Today, about 5,000, or 20 percent, of Oklahoma's inmates are in private prisons, up about 1,000 inmates since 2011.
Jolley said the state's percentage of prison beds used that are private is lower than it was a decade ago. Private prisons in Watonga and Hinton would likely reopen if more Oklahoma inmates became available, he said.