Oklahoma needs more prison beds, corrections director says

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: January 24, 2013 at 10:32 pm •  Published: January 25, 2013
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Oklahoma's prisons, at 99 percent capacity, need an additional $66.7 million in the next fiscal year to help deal with a growing offender population and to attract and retain correctional officers, the agency's director told a legislative panel Thursday.

The state Corrections Department is close to triple-celling inmates or holding inmates in corridors, which Justin Jones, the agency's director, vowed Thursday not to do. The cramming of inmates would result in a lawsuit and possibly the federal courts taking over the prison system, which occurred for more than a decade until a federal judge in 1983 ruled that Oklahoma's prison system was constitutional.

“I don't have any more buildings for space,” Jones said. “I don't have any more county jail beds to contract. This is it.”

State prisons are at 99.2 percent capacity, and all the available private prison beds are filled, Jones said.

The prison system has a record 26,267 inmates, Jones said. Inmate population growth has increased steadily the past several years and has more than doubled since 1990, when the state had about 12,100 inmates.

Law cited in growth

The inmate population growth is attributed to a state law that requires inmates convicted of certain violent crimes, including murder and manslaughter, to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole and inmates drawing longer sentences, he said.

The number of prisoners increased about 900 in the past year, Jones said. The agency was able the past couple of years to renovate buildings on prison grounds into bed space, but no spare buildings are available. The state has a growing backlog of inmates in county jails, Jones said. About 1,700 are in county jails now, up from 650 in 2000. Since 2003, the state consistently has been backed up by 1,000 inmates or more.

When county jails go over their capacity, they face fines and disciplinary action from the state Health Department.

Overcrowded jails can invoke the so-called 72-hour rule to get state prisoners transferred or scheduled to be moved in that time period.

Jones suggested lawmakers consider contracting with one of two empty 2,100-bed private prisons in the state, in Watonga and Hinton, and place prisoners there. County jails receive $27 a day to hold state prisoners; the state this year will pay about $22 million to the counties, Jones said. Placing the prisoners in one of the private prisons is estimated to cost $29 million.

Shortfall this year

The Corrections Department needs an additional $6.4 million in emergency appropriations to get the agency through this fiscal year, which ends June 30, Jones told members of the Senate budget subcommittee on public safety and judiciary.

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