WHETHER it's sending criminals away, letting them out or handling them when they're behind bars, corrections in Oklahoma constitutes one of the most challenging issues facing policymakers. Recent events help make the point.
The Department of Corrections has been getting an earful from relatives of some inmates who are being transferred to the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. OSR, a medium-security prison located in the hot and hardscrabble southwestern corner of the state, is a tough place. It's also understaffed. That's a bad combination.
In an effort to help keep law and order within the prison walls, the DOC over several weeks' time is moving out younger inmates from OSR and moving in roughly 480 others from around the state who are older than 40 and have behaved well. Family members of those being moved to OSR don't like it — they cite the much longer travel to visit their loved ones, but also concerns about violent episodes at the prison through the years.
However, “It's not going to be the same OSR population,” corrections spokesman Jerry Massie says. The DOC is banking on more mature, better-behaved inmates easing the prospects for trouble at the prison, which holds about 800 inmates.
It's an interesting idea, one borne out of necessity because the prison, like all of them in the system, needs more security guards. With 55 officers, OSR is only at 48 percent of its budgeted staffing level. Finding men and women who want to do the work is one challenge, keeping them is another. Massie says the prison hired 28 officers during fiscal 2012 but lost 36 — many to higher-paying jobs in the oil fields. Wardens at prisons across the state could share similar stories.
Barring truly unprecedented policy changes, the pressures on the prison system are here to stay. The inmate population is approaching 26,000 — per capita, only three states incarcerate more people than Oklahoma. The list of crimes requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their time before being considered for parole has only grown through the years.
A bill approved during the 2012 session has the potential to slightly ease the prison burden, in part by establishing sites where nonviolent offenders can be sent if they violate conditions of their parole, instead of returning them to prison. The bill also requires post-release supervision for all felons, which should reduce the recidivism rate.
However, the Senate rejected a piece of the bill that would have allowed inmates sentenced to “85 percent” crimes to begin earning good-time credits when they enter prison. The change would have freed up prison beds and saved money, but it was a bridge too far for many lawmakers.
Then again, it could be argued they're simply doing what their constituents want. Oklahomans are OK with sending criminals to prison, for a long time if need be, and can be uneasy with those who've done their time. Witness an overflow meeting last week of the Del City Planning Commission, which was considering an application to relocate a halfway house to the site of a Baptist church whose property is for sale.
Testimony was overwhelmingly against the idea. Del City's director of community services said his office got more protests about the proposal than it had for any case in the past six years. The board wound up voting against it unanimously. The city council gets the final say later this month. Any guesses on how that will go?