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.
About $3.8 million of the 2013 fiscal year supplemental appropriation would pay for a growth in offenders and $2 million would pay for an increase in the daily rate for private prisons to hold state inmates, which was included in a measure that passed on the last day of last year's session. During the state's economic downturn, private prisons reduced their rates; the measure last year restored the rate to the previous level. Another $583,200 would pay for required substance abuse treatment services for certain offenders, he said.
The prison system received $463.7 million this fiscal year. The additional $66.7 million would put the agency's budget at $530 million.
It's estimated lawmakers will have about $170 million in additional money this year to put together a budget of nearly $7 billion.
Need for higher pay
About $12.2 million of the funding request for the 2014 fiscal year is to increase employee pay to combat higher wages and better hours offered by private employers, Jones said. Only 62 percent of the agency's 5,800 authorized correctional officer positions are filled.
“I'm losing officers every day,” Jones said.
Prisoners at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply have walked away because of low staffing levels, he said. The minimum-security prison, which has no fence around it, has 44 officers to watch about 1,100 inmates. Prisoners wait for the guards to be distracted, and make the 30-yard walk to a nearby highway.
Jones is seeking a 5 percent raise for employees and an increase in starting pay for correctional officers from $11.83 to $14 an hour. Oklahoma's pay for correctional officers is the lowest in the region, Jones said. Starting pay for correctional officers is $12.98 an hour in Kansas, $13.38 an hour in Texas and $18.88 an hour in Colorado.
About 30 percent of correctional workers in Oklahoma qualify for food stamps, and about 85 percent of the staff qualifies for school lunch programs, Jones said.
Correctional officers can increase their pay if they attain the rank of corporal, which can take 18 months, but after that there is no pay increase. As a result, officers 18 months on the job can be making as much as officers with several years' experience.
The last pay increase most correctional officers received was an across-the-board raise for all state employees in October 2006, Jones said.