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OK policymakers will get straight talk from interim corrections director

Feb 15, 2016 | by Lynn Powell

JOE M. Allbaugh told Gov. Mary Fallin, when she asked him to step in as interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, that if she wanted a caretaker in the job, look elsewhere. “I like challenges in my life, and I’m a doer,” Allbaugh said this week.

JOE M. Allbaugh told Gov. Mary Fallin, when she asked him to step in as interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, that if she wanted a caretaker in the job, look elsewhere. “I like challenges in my life, and I’m a doer,” Allbaugh said this week.

He stopped by The Oklahoman after reading our editorial Sunday noting that he had stepped into an especially difficult and demanding state job. It was clear during his visit that Fallin had hired a no-nonsense administrator who won’t shy away from saying what’s on his mind.

This is perhaps to be expected from a man who has been a part of hardball politics much of his life. A native of Blackwell, Allbaugh helped get George W. Bush elected governor of Texas, defeating a popular incumbent along the way, and as Bush’s chief of staff helped change the makeup of that state’s board of corrections. He later worked on Bush’s presidential campaign and ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At the Department of Corrections, he oversees a prison system that stands at 113 percent of capacity, with roughly 28,000 men and women behind bars. They badly outnumber correctional officers, which leaves those guards and other inmates at risk, and many of the state’s prisons long ago outlived their usefulness.

A few days after beginning this job on Jan. 8, Allbaugh, 63, visited the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in

McAlester to see how much it had changed since the last time he was there, in the late 1970s. “Not one iota, except for H Block,” he said, referring to the wing that houses death row inmates.

“We are so antiquated from top to bottom, it is embarrassing,” Allbaugh said. He was talking about the entire prison system, which he believes needs significant changes in the long term. A few examples:

• One day closing Oklahoma State Penitentiary, except for H Block. “We have buildings that should be condemned, probably have been condemned, and the state still maintains them, pouring good money after bad money.”

• Moving maximum-security inmates to a location closer to the center of the state.

• Upgrading and standardizing training for correctional officers, something he said is especially important given how outnumbered they are.

• Changing the way money is spent within the agency. “Everybody writes checks at each facility. What’s that all about?”

Of course, Allbaugh has no control over the number of offenders who enter the prison system. The only way those numbers will begin to ebb is if lawmakers entertain serious corrections reform efforts designed to keep nonviolent offenders — they make up roughly half of the prison population — from winding up behind bars. And a major piece of any such reform is adequate funding for the programs needed to assist these offenders.

Those haven’t been legislative priorities when the state’s treasury was flush. In this awful budget year, new funds for any initiatives are sure to be few and far between. But Allbaugh is right when he says, “We’re on the wrong glide path. Society has a problem, and society needs to stand up and take ownership.”

In the meantime, Allbaugh intends to simply call it as he sees it — and work to get things done.

“My professional life is kind of a four-step process,” he said. “Tell me what your problems are. Give me an array of options. Pick one. And go. It’s real simple. It’s served me well my entire life. I’m approaching this in much the same fashion.”