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Bursting prisons need additional $26.1 million to handle growing inmate population, legislators told

Feb 9, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons need another $26.1 million just to keep from bursting at the seams, says the Department of Corrections.In presentations last week to House and Senate appropriating committees, DOC Communications Director Terri Watkins said an already burgeoning inmate population is expected grow more than 1,100 during the next budget year, based on recent trends.That, on top of prisons already operating at 116 percent of capacity, means the department needs more than $26 million to contract for additional beds and to pay for state prisoners being held in county jails because the state either doesn’t know about them or has no place to put them, Watkins said. And that doesn’t include another $3.6 million to feed, clothe, heat, cool and guard the additional inmates. “It’s not a good situation, let’s put it that way,” Watkins said Thursday when asked during a House subcommittee meeting how much longer the state could avoid federal intervention because of overcrowding. Friday, in a telephone interview, Watkins said, “We need to ease overcrowding. That’s the safety issue.”

By RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, February 9, 2015 12:00 am

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons need another $26.1 million just to keep from bursting at the seams, says the Department of Corrections.

In presentations last week to House and Senate appropriating committees, DOC Communications Director Terri Watkins said an already burgeoning inmate population is expected grow more than 1,100 during the next budget year, based on recent trends.

That, on top of prisons already operating at 116 percent of capacity, means the department needs more than $26 million to contract for additional beds and to pay for state prisoners being held in county jails because the state either doesn’t know about them or has no place to put them, Watkins said.

And that doesn’t include another $3.6 million to feed, clothe, heat, cool and guard the additional inmates.

“It’s not a good situation, let’s put it that way,” Watkins said Thursday when asked during a House subcommittee meeting how much longer the state could avoid federal intervention because of overcrowding.

Friday, in a telephone interview, Watkins said, “We need to ease overcrowding. That’s the safety issue.”

Altogether, DOC is asking for an addition $84.5 million for the fiscal year beginning June 1. The governor’s budget released Monday recommends $15 million in additional funding for Corrections.

The DOC currently houses about 28,550 offenders. Of those, a little over two-thirds are in state-run facilities. Private prisons and county jails keep the rest under contract with the state.

Another group of state inmates are in county jail space not contracted by the DOC. In many cases, the department says, it does not know about these inmates until months or even years after they’ve been sentenced.

In one case, Watkins said, DOC was presented with an inmate — and a bill for housing him — more than two years after he was sentenced.

That’s because current law does not require courts to notify the DOC of convictions or sentencing until offenders are handed over to the department. Corrections has asked for legislation addressing that situation, and Watkins said a pilot program involving Oklahoma and Cleveland counties is underway. Tulsa County is expected to come online this spring.

Watkins said it is unclear where the additional beds to ease crowding and house additional inmates will be found. A mothballed private prison at Watonga is a possibility, but Watkins said the department can’t request proposals until it has been given the money to pay for spaces.

One reason for the growing prison population is the emphasis on removing offenders from non-contracted jail space. Another is the increasing number of 85-percent offenders — that is, inmates required by law to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

According to DOC figures, the number of 85-percent offenders grew by nearly 4,000 from 2007 to 2014.

The total number of incarcerated offenders during that same period grew by a little over 3,000.

Another trend is the reduction in offenders released under supervision — parole, probation or ankle monitor. While the number of people behind bars has increased by 3,100 since June 2006, those under supervision has fallen by nearly 7,000.

Thus, while the overall number of people under DOC control is almost 4,000 less than at its peak in 2008, the number in DOC facilities continues to increase.

That’s important financially because the daily average cost for each inmate ranges from $41.49 for those in community work centers to $100.80 for maximum security.

Meanwhile, the average daily cost for offenders on parole and probation is $3.43.

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