The Oklahoma Board of Corrections is looking at three options to deal with overcrowding at the state's prison facilities: expanding public prisons, contracting for more private-prison beds, and buying or leasing one of the state's two empty private prisons.
At its Thursday meeting, the board approved a measure allowing the Department of Corrections to draw up a request for proposals from private prison companies to provide an additional 350 to 2,000 medium-security prison beds for state inmates.
The board also voted to request more funding this fiscal year to pay for using private-prison beds and seek more funds for fiscal 2015 to give a pay raise to corrections officers and support staff.
As of the end of December, 5,824 Department of Corrections inmates, or more than a fourth of the total prison population, were in private prisons, according to the agency's latest inmate count. An additional 1,126 inmates were in contracted halfway houses and 518 were being held in contracted county jails.
A document formally requesting proposals to use more private-prison space should be completed and issued within the next 30 days, said Greg Williams, administrator for the Department of Corrections' private prisons and jails division.
“We are experiencing, and project to experience, growth this year and next year that will exceed the state resources currently available,” Williams told the board.
Authorization for the request for proposals passed the board 6-1, with board member Earnest Ware dissenting.
Board Secretary Steve Burrage said the request was needed to evaluate one of the three options the board is considering to find more room to house inmates, and no final decision on which direction the board will take has yet been made.
On Nov. 21, the Board of Corrections held a special meeting at the Quartz Mountain Resort in Lone Wolf to discuss ways to address the state's overflowing prison population.
More than 1,500 Department of Corrections inmates are backed up in county jails throughout the state, and many counties are taking legal action against the department as a result of the backup.
Despite the corrections department adding 1,285 beds between July 2011 and October 2013, the effort has not been enough to address the growth in the number of prisoners, which increased by 1,455 during that time, Laura Pitman, deputy director of institutions, told the board at the November meeting, according to detailed minutes.
The minutes show that Pitman told the board that the department would need between 450 and 500 beds by July this year, when the fiscal year ends, and another 750 to 800 beds by July 2015 to address projected growth.
Those additional beds don't take into account the inmates backlogged in county jails, she told the board.
The board was then presented with three options:
• Expanding public facility bed space by reopening a currently closed cell house at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and using gymnasiums at other state facilities to house prisoners. Although this would provide additional beds, the already low staffing levels at the prisons, the layout of the prisons, security concerns and the cost of implementing the plan may pose problems.