McALESTER — The Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the state's oldest prison, has seen its inmate population fall to less than half of what it was five years ago as officials move hundreds of the state's most dangerous convicts to private prisons.
The decline has been so steep that some state lawmakers, corrections guards and others wonder if “Big Mac,” as it is called, will become home to only death row and the execution chamber, or if the prison will eventually be closed.
One by one, cell houses have been shuttered, including several in recent years. As of the last weekly count, 574 inmates were at the facility, compared with close to 1,400 in early 2008.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials say there are no plans to close the prison, the state's only one that is solely maximum-security. Some inmates, such as those on death row and with serious mental illnesses, could not be moved to private prisons for legal, public-policy and cost reasons, they say. But the steadily deteriorating facilities raise questions about the prison's future.
In a June 11 statement, the DOC said it plans to keep the penitentiary in operation “for years to come,” although “the goal is to reduce the facility offender population to approximately 600 offenders.” The agency received money in fiscal 2012 to build a new administration building, install a stun fence and move inmates to other facilities. Cell houses were closed because they were “old and not cost-efficient to operate” or posed safety issues, the statement and DOC officials said.
Meanwhile, the state's prison population keeps rising and is at 98 percent of capacity. County jails are overcrowded with inmates who are supposed to be transferred to the state prisons. Tulsa County has sued the state over the issue. Recent efforts at criminal justice reform haven't cut the incarceration rate in Oklahoma, which has the fourth highest in the nation.
At a Board of Corrections meeting Friday, it was revealed a board committee had decided to reopen a penitentiary cell unit that was closed earlier this year, to add back 221 beds. The state also will pay for use of 310 additional beds for medium-security inmates at a private prison in Cushing. But the long-term crowding problem remains. Board member Steve Burrage said the department will need to ask the state for $10 million to $15 million in additional funding by early 2014.
Critics of the decline at McAlester say it represents a refusal by political leaders to invest more in a state-run prison system and to further privatize incarceration. They point to private prison companies' campaign donations to lawmakers and intensive lobbying at the state Capitol.
Sean Wallace, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said staffing levels are so poor in the prison system that even legislators who used to oppose privatization now see few other options.
“We are starting to wonder if there really is a scheme to put the agency in such a bad situation that we have to privatize it.” Wallace said.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, said the corrections department should look at keeping more maximum-security inmates in private prisons.
The penitentiary has “been a lawsuit waiting to happen for many years” because of its aging buildings, Jolley said.
“Obviously, we've been utilizing OSP because of necessity,” he said, adding the older housing units should be shut down, leaving only the unit with death row and disciplinary segregation and the mental heath units.
Jolley said the Legislature should seriously consider building a new state-run maximum-security facility, in McAlester or elsewhere.
Signs of decline
Tour the penitentiary prison today and you'll see many signs of age and abandonment. The closed buildings and prison cells nearly outnumber the open ones.
The facility is tidy. But razor-wire is rusted, floors are stained from leaky roofs and stark white paint peels from building exteriors. The air conditioning has been spotty in recent years. The famous McAlester prison rodeo hasn't been held since 2009; the large arena sits empty.
In 1973, when a massive, deadly riot occurred at the prison, there were more than 2,000 inmates packed into the facility, about double its capacity. They torched and ransacked most of the place.
Afterward, a consultant hired by the state advised that the prison, built in 1908, be torn down and rebuilt.
The demolition and rebuilding of the prison never happened. Rather, the state decided to keep the facility open, although with hundreds of fewer inmates and, until years later, only maximum security. Some buildings were razed, others repaired. New units were added in the 1980s and 1990s.
The inmate population declined after the riot and has never again reached the same levels. But in the 1990s, it rose again to above 1,600. At the same time, private prisons began springing up in Hinton, Holdenville, Cushing, Lawton, Sayre and Watonga, holding medium- and minimum-security inmates.
In 2007, an audit by a private consultant, MGT, criticized the state for reclassifying inmates from maximum to medium security in order to shift them to other prisons. It recommended the state enact a plan to add maximum-security beds at the prison and to keep more such prisoners at private prisons. The plan to add the beds in McAlester never came about.
Late last decade, the Legislature approved a law allowing maximum-security inmates to be held in private prisons. In 2008, 360 went to Holdenville's Davis Correctional Facility, run by Corrections Corp. of America. The number of inmates at the penitentiary began to drop at that point even as the system's total population climbed, corrections department records show.
In 2009, another consultant, the Durrant Group, recommended abandoning all housing units at the McAlester prison except the one containing death row and building new facilities there.
“Savings in the operating costs would offset the increased cost of construction of a new center,” the consultant said.
Some legislators criticized the report because it didn't address in detail use of private prisons.
Today, about 5,000, or 20 percent, of Oklahoma's inmates are in private prisons, up about 1,000 inmates since 2011.
Jolley said the state's percentage of prison beds used that are private is lower than it was a decade ago. Private prisons in Watonga and Hinton would likely reopen if more Oklahoma inmates became available, he said.
In June, another 180 maximum-security inmates from McAlester were sent to the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, also run by Corrections Corp. of America. The shift occurred after Puerto Rico decided to pull its roughly 400 inmates from the facility, which followed a major disturbance there in March in which inmates smashed windows and property and fashioned weapons. The outbreak was quelled with pepper-spraying and beanbag shooting, the Tulsa World reported.
Corrections Director Justin Jones said the available beds at Cimarron allowed him to move inmates out of the penitentiary and close units there, which he had wanted to do for years. “It was not a safe environment,” he said.
Jerry Massie, corrections department spokesman, said the shift was part of the effort to reduce the population to about 600 inmates.
The cost of incarcerating each maximum-security inmate at Cimarron, $57, is lower than the $78 daily rate at the penitentiary. However, the private prison rate excludes major medical, mental-health and death row expenses, plus certain oversight expenses by the state.
Because the penitentiary is aging and is a lockdown facility, operation costs are higher, Massie said.
Jolley said the cost of housing prisoners in public facilities does not incorporate building and maintenance costs, yet he added that it's difficult to get a true comparison.
Although Big Mac is at 64-percent capacity, the prison system as a whole is 98 percent full. Massie said an additional 1,000 beds will be needed next year, which will require more funding. How or when the state will get those beds is unclear.
Only days before the state decided to reopen a penitentiary unit, Massie said there were no plans to add inmates to the prison. The number of inmates at Big Mac was expected to remain about 575, he said. Corrections officials said at Friday's board meeting that it will take time to reopen the cell unit because more staff members must be brought on, which has been difficult.
State Rep. Donnie Condit, who represents the McAlester area, said the corrections department's hands are tied because no additional funding has come from the Legislature. “We don't fund the prison at what we should,” Condit said. “We've kind of backed ourselves in a corner.”
Many of the prisoners at OSP are those who could not be housed at other facilities because of behavior issues, said Deputy Warden Terry Crenshaw. About 60 percent of the inmate population there is prescribed psychotropic drugs.
“OSP has always been known, if individuals have problems or are problematic at other institutions, they're sent here,” Crenshaw said.
Randall Lopez, who retired last year after working 20 years as an officer at the penitentiary, said risks of violence are higher at the prison because of issues with the aging facility, including ongoing problems with air conditioning.
Crenshaw, Lopez and others said thanks to additional security measures, it is highly unlikely that in the event of an inmate uprising, a whole unit would be out of control, much less the whole prison, as it was in 1973.
New facility layouts have improved security and inmates are on lockdown 23 hours a day, with one hour of “outside time” by themselves or with a cellmate in an enclosed structure. Outside their cells, inmates are restrained by belly chains, handcuffs and leg shackles.
In June, after several decades with the agency, Jones resigned, effective Oct. 1. The move followed months of strained relationships between Jones, who sought more funding and was opposed to aggressive expansion of private prisons, and legislative leaders like Jolley, who support greater use of private prisons.
Gov. Mary Fallin was critical of Jones' office after questioning whether his agency had been open about the existence of $22 million in revolving funds. Jones said the department had been transparent.
Despite the corrections department's request for a $60 million increase next year to deal with the rising inmate population, the Legislature approved only a $1 million increase.
Earlier this month, Fallin called for an audit of the state's correctional system.
“They're going to be looking at all the operations,” said Alex Weintz, Fallin's spokesman. The audit will be a starting point for developing plans to address prison overcrowding, he said.
Some political leaders say the heart of the overcrowding issue is the state's failure to carry out programs that would reduce its high incarceration rate.
In 2012, Oklahoma passed a measure, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, aimed at lowering the inmate population, in part by improving parole supervision and requiring mental health and substance abuse evaluation at the time of arrest. Critics have said many of the provisions are being ignored. Former state House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said he doesn't think that as implemented, the measure will affect the prison population.
Also, current laws in the state, such as requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences for certain crimes, keep the inmate population high.
Jolley said there's little political will to release offenders early, and tough-on-crime legislation that lengthens sentences or creates new crimes will cause the inmate population to increase.
Coupled with the aging infrastructure at OSP and other state facilities, Jolley said, it is time state leaders had a discussion about building a new facility.
“I would be very interested in seeing a new maximum security facility being at least discussed,” Jolley said. “As we transition into a new DOC leader, maybe now is the time to begin having those discussions on what the future of corrections in Oklahoma looks like.”
Jolley said he did not have a preference for where a new facility would be located, but that consideration should be given to locations near medical facilities used for treating prisoners to reduce transportation costs.
As for the penitentiary, Jolley said within 10 years the facility will likely be reduced to the unit containing Death Row and the mental health units.
“I would be surprised if OSP is not completely different,” he said, “I would hope … that OSP is a modern facility, that's its lean, mean and efficient. And I think that's what we'll see.”