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Oklahoma Watch: Oklahoma State Penitentiary locked in vicious circle of deteriorating facilities, more inmates

Oklahoma Watch: The decline of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester has been so steep that some state lawmakers, corrections guards and others wonder if it will become home to only Death Row and the execution chamber, or if the prison eventually will be closed.
BY CLIFTON ADCOCK and SHAUN HITTLE Modified: July 28, 2013 at 12:26 am •  Published: July 28, 2013
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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.

Next steps

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.”

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