Mike W. Ray
OKLAHOMA CITY –- Oklahoma’s prison system is outdated, underfunded and overextended, as demonstrated by the second consecutive request by Corrections Department Director Joe Allbaugh for a budget of $1 billion-plus.
Oklahoma consistently has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
The total convict population numbered 62,601 on Nov. 27. That included 26,658 incarcerated inmates (16,896 locked in state facilities, which were at 112 percent of rated capacity; 2,044 inmates in community corrections; 585 inmates at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center; 5,879 inmates in private prisons; 1,239 in halfway houses; and 15 in county jails under contract between the DOC and the county); 349 prisoners who were hospitalized or “outside the walls” for some other reason; 1,282 convicts confined in county jails while awaiting transfer to the state prison system; and 34,312 convicts in “community supervision” programs such as wearing GPS tracking devices or on probation or parole.
The Nov. 27 head count showed an increase of 411 inmates from four and a half months earlier, on July 10. In fact, the convict population reached a record 63,000 on Aug. 31 but gradually declined over the next three months. Oklahoma’s prison system count was 55,244 two years ago (as of November 30) – indicating an increase of 7,357 convicts in the last 24 months.
The Legislature has mandated stiffer penalties for numerous offenses, and adds to the list of crimes every year. The 2017 regular legislative session was no exception; at least three measures created new offenses for which a violator can be sent to jail.
Even with a GOP supermajority in both houses of the 149-member Oklahoma Legislature, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin got merely a fraction of her criminal justice reform measures enacted this year – because of the obstructionist tactics of one Republican state Representative who had the tacit approval of the Republican Speaker of the House.
Meanwhile, the appropriation from the Legislature to the Department of Corrections (DOC) is actually less today than it was 10 years ago.
According to the House of Representatives’ Fiscal Division, the DOC received an appropriation of $482.6 million in Fiscal Year 2008. The appropriation for Fiscal Year 2017 (which ended June 30) was originally $484.9 million; however, ledgers reflect, legislators siphoned off more than $4 million of that to help plug another gaping hole in the state budget, leaving the DOC with a net appropriation of $480 million.
Largely because of staffing shortages and comparatively low pay, the turnover rate last year among all Corrections Department staff was 21 percent; among correctional officers the turnover rate was 25 percent. Records indicate that more than two-thirds of the agency’s correctional officers have less than five years of service with the department.
The agency’s health-care costs are rising as the prison population ages because of lengthier sentences.
In a related matter, six months ago an estimated 14,461 prison inmates were deemed to be in need of mental health services. That was an increase of 3,402 (or 30 percent) over the number of Oklahoma prisoners who were considered in need of mental health services at the end of Fiscal Year 2011, records reflect.
In addition, the DOC’s capital requirements continue to grow. Maintenance, repairs and replacement of infrastructure and equipment have been deferred or ignored for several years to support operations.
“The days of baling wire and pliers are over,” Allbaugh said.
The Board of Corrections voted Tuesday to request $1.53 billion – an increase of more than $1 billion over the current appropriation – for Fiscal Year 2019 (July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019).
The extra revenue would include funds to build two medium-security prisons, each with a capacity of 2,000 beds, one institution for men and the other for women; $10 million to finance a 5% across-the-board pay raise for agency employees; $3 million for education, substance-abuse treatment and re-entry programs for convicts; $6.7 million to boost compensation rates for the agency’s medical, mental health and dental care providers; and $5 million to expand the agency’s fleet of vehicles and to replace vehicles whose odometers average more than 200,000 miles.
The department has 24 institutions, but only eight of them were designed to house inmates, the agency reports. Furthermore, several of the institutions are aged, and capital improvements needed at existing facilities are estimated at more than $141 million.
The biggest single item is $22 million for an electronic, computerized offender management system.
The Corrections Department still relies on paperwork for much of what it does daily – which explains in part why a year and a half ago the agency had an estimated 400,000 paper files, some dating back to the 1920s, that it was wading through, converting into digital files.
One private-sector company advertises computer software “to manage the offender lifecycle from intake to release.” It tracks functions such as amounts spent on inmate health care, measuring capacity, calculating staffing ratios, and maintaining up-to-date records on all inmates.
A performance audit of the Corrections Department that was conducted by the office of State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones for the period 1 July 2007 through 30 June 2013 concluded that the agency’s Offender Management System (OMS) “suffers from numerous inadequacies.”
Among the myriad shortcomings identified by the audit: the OMS “cannot project accurate” inmate release dates, will not prompt case managers when inmate assessments are due or when an offender becomes eligible for lower security placement, does not automatically update a convict’s age on his/her birthday, is not “user friendly,” freezes and regularly “kicks users out” of the system, experiences “functional inconsistency” because its “usability” depends on the time of day or number of users who are logged on at any given time, the list of an offender’s crimes does not include recent incidents, data files can be easily overwritten inadvertently, and the system is prone to input errors.
The state penitentiary at McAlester, the oldest Corrections Department facility, is a prime example of neglect. The maximum-security institution was built in 1908.
“Big Mac”needs more than $14 million worth of improvements, Allbaugh said. Those include $5.5 million for lock, door and frame replacement throughout the prison; new water, sewer and gas lines; $275,000 worth of electrical repairs; a new air conditioning system; and road repairs.
The Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a minimum-security institution also located at McAlester that houses more than 700 male inmates, needs $17 million in improvements, DOC reports.
That includes a new water treatment plant; $4 million for electrical and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems; $555,000 for roofing replacement; $715,000 for laundry repairs; $4.4 million for a restricted housing unit; and $385,000 for emergency power generators.
The Mack Alford Correctional Center at Stringtown, which opened in 1973, needs at least $7 million worth of improvements: $3.3 million for lock and panel replacement in its housing unit, $2.75 million for a water treatment plant, $676,000 for “stun” fencing, $220,000 for land application of its wastewater, and $59,700 for roof replacement. Warden Kameron Harvanek told the Board of Corrections that the water storage tank at Mack Alford has holes that are plugged with a mop handle and a toothbrush.
The Lexington Assessment & Reception Center is in need of various improvements costing approximately $24.8 million. Those include: $17.35 million for a restricted housing unit; $3.7 million to repair/replace valves, piping and ventilation in the mechanical room; water lines costing more than $900,000, plus $110,000 for a water softener on one of the institution’s wells and $171,600 to recondition the water tower; $462,000 for new roofing; $330,000 in electrical repairs; $550,000 for a new ‘phone system; $1 million for a “stun” fence, plus $55,000 for a perimeter fence; and $165,000 to replace emergency generators.
Joseph Harp Correctional Center at Lexington, a medium-security facility that opened in 1978 and houses 1,400 inmates, is in need of more than $11 million in capital improvements, Allbaugh said. Those include $3,740,000 to replace the locks, doors and frames of inmate cells; $3.7 million to replace valves, pipes and ventilation in the mechanical room; $715,000 for a heating/cooling water and domestic hot water system; $748,000 for new roofing; $330,000 for electrical system repairs; $550,000 for a new telephone system; $176,000 for a sewage lagoon and a wastewater land application system; $132,000 to recondition the institution’s water tower; and $1.23 million for a “stun” fence.
The 108-year-old State Reformatory at Granite needs at least $2.1 million in improvements: $1.1 million to replace the water tower, $429,000 to install new roofing, $187,660 to replace gas lines, $220,000 to update an access control system, and $198,000 to replace Weatherbee panels.
William S. Key Correctional Center at Fort Supply needs more than $18 million worth of improvements, Corrections officials report. Those include $6.6 million for transformer and electrical service, $4.4 million for a boiler and chiller, $4.4 million for a restricted housing unit, $2.2 million for roof repairs, $550,000 for a telephone system, and $208,000 for a fire alarm system.
Jim Hamilton Correctional Center at Hodgen, a facility that opened in 1969, needs $4.4 million for a restricted housing unit, a new ‘phone system priced at $440,000, and $440,000 to replace the roof over the gymnasium.
Mabel Bassett, a female medium/minimum security facility at McLoud, needs $2.17 million in roof repairs, $1.2 million to update an access control system, $198,000 for an intercom system and $198,000 to replace Weatherbee panels.
Dick Connor Correctional Center, a medium-security institution housing about 1,200 men, requires at least $6.9 million in repairs, officials contend. Those include $3.7 million to replace valves, pipes and ventilation in the mechanical room; $1.1 million to install new roofs; $715,000 for a heating/cooling water system and for domestic hot water; $550,000 for a new telephone system; $550,000 to improve the plumbing and wastewater collection/disposal system; $139,150 to renovate an access control system; and $165,000 to repair or replace the main power generator. The Hominy institution opened 38 years ago, in 1979.
The Dr. Eddie Warrior minimum security facility for women, at Taft, needs $1.65 million to buy some emergency power generators, $633,500 in roof repairs, $550,000 for a new telephone system, $33,000 to remove a water tower, $715,000 to replace the auditorium roof and a wall, and $46,200 to replace soffits and the roof at the administration building.
James Crabtree Correctional Center at Helena, which opened in 1982, needs $677,000 for roof repairs, $550,000 for a telephone system, $165,000 for a heating/ventilation/air conditioning system, $582,000 for a “stun” fence, $278,000 to update two access control systems, $330,000 to replace two emergency power generators, and $198,000 to replace Weatherbee panels.
The Kate Barnard Center in Oklahoma City, which opened 40 years ago, needs $247,500 to repair the roof and $220,000 in electrical repairs, the Corrections Department reports.
Jess Dunn Correctional Center at Taft needs to update its access control system, at a cost of $139,150; repair and paint its water tower, at an estimated cost of $247,500; and replace Weatherbee panels, at a cost of $198,000.
Howard McLeod center in Atoka needs $99,000 to recondition its water storage tower, $165,000 to install emergency power generators, $139,000 to update an access control system, and $198,000 to replace Weatherbee panels.
John H. Lilley Correctional Center at Boley needs $4.4 million to develop a restricted housing unit, $1.8 million worth of new roofing, and $99,000 to recondition its water storage tank.
The Oklahoma City Community Corrections Center, near the I-235 and I-44 interchange, needs $385,000 for some power generators and $41,580 for soffit and roof repairs to the administration building.
The Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center at Vinita needs $638,000 worth of roof repairs, and Bill Johnson Correctional Center at Alva needs electrical upgrades costing an estimated $132,000.
Note: Mike W. Ray retired earlier this year after a 45-year career as a journalist on newspapers in Oklahoma and Texas, two years in public relations with Southwestern Bell Telephone, plus 19 years as a media director at the Oklahoma House of Representatives.