Private prisons in Oklahoma soon could be housing maximum-security inmates from other states under a law approved in the waning days of the 2009 legislative session. The language inserted into an omnibus corrections bill changes state policy that previously allowed only minimum- and medium-security inmates from other states to be housed in private prisons. House author Randy Terrill, R-Moore, defended the law, saying this week that several safeguards were put in place, including a policy that allows the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to review and approve inmates and to ensure the facilities where they will be housed were designed to hold such offenders. But Judith Greene, director of the New York-based criminal justice research institute Justice Strategies, said similar policies in other states have been disastrous. "I think it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Greene, who has analyzed criminal justice practices and private prisons for years. She said similar efforts by private prisons operating in Ohio and New Mexico in the 1990s resulted in excessive violence against guards and other inmates. "Mostly knifings and a couple of deaths,” she said. "There very well should be some concerns (in Oklahoma).” But Terrill said the bill specifically prohibits inmates with a history of escape, a felony conviction for rioting, sex offenders or those who have been sentenced to death. Texas, which has four private prisons housing out-of-state inmates, is one of the few states that allows maximum-security inmates. But inmates are screened to weed out anyone with a history of violence or other behavioral problems behind bars before they can be housed there, said Adan Munoz, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. "We’ve got enough troublemakers in Texas,” Munoz said.
Language added lateTerrill inserted the language late in the session into a bill that authorized the Corrections Department to transfer illegal-immigrant inmates to federal authorities before they finished their sentences in Oklahoma. Terrill said the language surfaced late in the session because it involved intense negotiations among the governor’s office, state House and Senate, Corrections Department, the private prison industry and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. The bill passed overwhelmingly and was signed June 2 by the governor. Both the Corrections Department and the employees association said they supported the final version. But state Sen. Richard Lerblance, a Democrat whose McAlester district has two private prisons, said he still is concerned that the new law could pose a threat to those private prison workers. "You bring these hardened criminals in, the worst of the worst, and you’re going to subject the employees of these prisons to more danger,” he said.