SAYRE — 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.”
Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, said the publicly traded company won't speculate about the future of North Fork at this point.
“It is premature to speculate on the future status of government partnerships at North Fork four years out,” Owen said in an email statement.
“However ... we are deeply committed to our dedicated staff and the local community in Sayre — a commitment that spans 14 years and predates our partnership with California.”
Lakey said North Fork is the city's largest employer and an important source of revenue for the city of 4,000. He said roughly 25 percent of the prison's staff lives in Sayre.
“The other 25 or so percent come from Elk City,” Lakey said. “The other 50 percent come from all over this area.”
When the prison closed in 2003, more than 200 workers lost their jobs. Now, with the prison nearly filled to capacity, roughly 400 jobs are connected to the prison.
“It would hurt us here, in Sayre, to be sure,” Lakey said. “But it would hurt the whole area.”
Lakey said the prison also produces a hefty amount of sales tax each year for Sayre.
“We're only a city of 4,000 people ... with the inmates we add 2,000,” the mayor said. “What we lose out of it is the sales tax generated by the commissary there in the prison.
“Every time a prisoner buys a Coke, or whatever, it's taxable.”
But losing its third-largest source of sales tax revenue — trailing only a grocery store and Flying J truck stop on the highway — wouldn't necessarily plunge Sayre into hard times.
In fact, Lakey said, the city treats the money as extra income, using it make one-time purchases instead of relying on it for recurring bills. He said the city has used the sales tax to match federal grants and to construct buildings used to lure a new company to the city.
“We treat it like some fellow who has an oil lease on his property,” Lakey said. “If that guy goes out and buys a new house and new cars and it shuts down, ... where's he going to be?
“There's no reality to it yet ... and they probably can't tell us anything at this point, anyway.”
The Associated Press