Additional appropriations and stricter adherence to Oklahoma statutes in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections are imperative, said one lawmaker at a Thursday interim study.
Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Lavern, who hosted the study on prisons with Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said the DOC could use at least an additional $20 to $25 million in state appropriations. During the study, he also tried to explore ways the prisons can counter overcrowding issues.
Blackwell said the Department of Corrections needs more money to better compensate its employees and reverse the high turnover rate.
Blackwell also said he would like to see the department follow Oklahoma statutes by transferring prisoners into step-down programs before release. Blackwell is suggesting the state do this by utilizing more privately owned halfway houses.
“We're at 100 percent,” said Blackwell. “If we put 500 of those inmates into private … halfway houses, all of a sudden we're at 97.5 percent, just by that simple move.”
According to the statute, the Department of Corrections is required to send inmates with no history of violent offenses to alternative facilities such as work centers, community housing, halfway houses, or work release programs no less than 210 days before release of custody. Other prisoners qualify for similar transfers at 180 days before release.
The statute also gives the department discretion if the prisoner presents a public safety or flight risk.
Neville Massie, spokeswoman for the DOC, acknowledged that for the past three years only 14 percent of inmates are released into such programs in compliance with the law.
At the study, Echols vocalized plans to meet with the Department of Corrections to get a better understanding of why they are not following the law.
Blackwell and representatives from Avalon, an Oklahoma-based, privately owned community housing company, argued that by transferring more prisoners would relieve population stress in the prisons and county jails.
Cleveland County Sheriff Joseph Lester said the department needs to pay its workers more and do whatever is necessary to get inmates awaiting an open prison bed out of his county jail.
“This is a critical issue for sheriffs all across the state of Oklahoma,” Lester said.
Lester said that his new, larger county jail, which can hold more than 500 people, is almost full. More than 100 of those housed there are state prisoners. Lester said the rate he is paid by the Department of Corrections to keep them is well below what it costs him to house and feed them.