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California inmates to leave private prison in Oklahoma

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will begin removing prisoners from a private prison in Sayre over the next couple of years as the cash-strapped state seeks to comply with an order handed down by a federal court.
by Andrew Knittle Modified: July 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm •  Published: July 17, 2012

Prisoners doing time at the North Fork Correctional Facility in western Oklahoma soon will be headed home to California.

All of the inmates incarcerated at the privately owned facility are from the Golden State, which has been sending prisoners to Oklahoma for years to ease overcrowding. The prison, with a capacity to house more than 2,000 inmates, was built in the late 1990s by Corrections Corporation of America.

All of the California prisoners are expected to be gone by the end of 2013.

If the prison shuts down — as it did in 2003 amid a phone call billing dispute with Wisconsin inmates — it means the loss of Sayre's largest employer.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state of California currently has 9,300 inmates doing time out of the state. At its peak, there were 10,400, she said.

“This is going to happen by attrition,” Thornton said. “So, as of now, we will stop transporting inmates to out-of-state prisons.”

Thornton said the removal of the inmates has nothing to do with a riot that erupted at North Fork in October, leaving dozens of inmates injured.

California began to transfer prisoners to other states, including Arizona and Mississippi, after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order in 2006 to alleviate the state's bursting prison system.

Now, the prisoners must be returned home. All of them, by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, Thornton said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that California must reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of the system's design capacity by June. At its peak, the prison system had an inmate population of nearly 174,000, or more than 200 percent of its design capacity, corrections department records show.

Once all of California's out-of-state inmates are removed from prisons such as North Fork, it's estimated the cash-strapped state will see savings of roughly $320 million a year, Thornton said.

Impact to town

The effect the move will have on Sayre — which pushed hard for prison's opening in 1998 — remains unknown.

Mayor Eddie Tom Lakey said it's too early to tell.

“CCA has not made contact with us,” Lakey said of the prison company. “We called California and visited with them. ... They said it would probably take a year and a half to get them all out.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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