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Friction between sheriffs, prison officials reignites

Feb 15, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Friction between the state’s new prisons director and some county sheriffs over how quickly the Department of Corrections is picking up inmates from county jails is flaring up again this session over a pair of bills moving through the Legislature. DOC Director Robert Patton began pulling more inmates out of county jails shortly after he started at the department about a year ago, a move that angered sheriffs who counted on the $27-per-day price the state paid for inmates to help maintain jail operations.

By SEAN MURPHY, The Associated Press|

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Friction between the state's new prisons director and some county sheriffs over how quickly the Department of Corrections is picking up inmates from county jails is flaring up again this session over a pair of bills moving through the Legislature.

DOC Director Robert Patton began pulling more inmates out of county jails shortly after he started at the department about a year ago, a move that angered sheriffs who counted on the $27-per-day price the state paid for inmates to help maintain jail operations.

Now corrections officials are pushing two bills that would delay when the department starts paying county jails for an inmate, measures that are drawing fierce resistance from county sheriffs and reigniting sore feelings between the two sides.

Republican House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman, who waded into a heated exchange this week in the Capitol rotunda between lobbyists for the DOC and the sheriffs, said he hopes the department will work with sheriffs who want to house state inmates and find a compromise. He noted that state prisons are overcrowded and currently operating at an average of about 116 percent capacity.                                    "If sheriffs want to help us out and they have bed space available for $27 a day, why wouldn't we utilize them to help this overcrowding situation that we have in our prisons and that puts our state employees at risk who work there?" Hickman said.

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said he is grappling with a $3 million hole in his jail operations budget that is solely due to the state removing more than half of the 600 inmates it had in the state's largest county jail. He said about 10 percent of open positions at the jail have gone unfilled.

"We have the bed space available," Whetsel said. "It is frustrating."

Patton acknowledges state prisons currently are operating at an average of 116 percent capacity, but he says county sheriffs have had plenty of time to adjust to the department's policy of picking up sentenced inmates more quickly.

"It's time to move on. They've had a year," Patton said when asked about the sheriff's concerns.

When Patton took office, he also was facing some sheriffs – like those in Bryan, Grady and Tulsa counties – who were criticizing the department for not picking up inmates quickly enough.

Ray McNair, executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association, acknowledges the relationship between Patton and the county sheriffs has been a rocky one.

"It's been a very rough year since Director Patton came in," McNair said.

Still, McNair said he's willing to meet with legislative leaders and prison officials to work out a compromise.

"The bottom line is we want to sit down at the table and discuss how we can help the DOC," McNair said. "If we can't and they say they don't need us anymore, that's fine. We'll go on and try for other ways to keep our jails operating."

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said: "We're going to sit down and try to work it out."

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