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Oklahoma corrections chief says prisons face major challenges

Jun 10, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

The state Department of Corrections will use a $14 million budget hike to hire more staff, add more beds for a growing inmate population, make repairs and pay for expected increases in utility bills, DOC Director Robert Patton said Tuesday.
Speaking to The Oklahoman’s editorial board, he praised the Legislature for its attention to the problems of his department, but said the DOC will continue to face huge challenges.
The prison system is one of the biggest areas of state spending.
Its 2016 appropriation is nearly $485 million, up almost 3 percent from the previous budget. The increase came while most other state agencies took cuts of up to 7.25 percent.
The offender population greatly exceeds the design capacity of state prison facilities

By Rick Green Modified: June 9, 2015 at 8:59 pm •  Published: June 9, 2015

The state Department of Corrections will use a $14 million budget hike to hire more staff, add more beds for a growing inmate population, make repairs and pay for expected increases in utility bills, DOC Director Robert Patton said Tuesday.

Speaking to The Oklahoman's editorial board, he praised the Legislature for its attention to the problems of his department, but said the DOC will continue to face huge challenges.

The prison system is one of the biggest areas of state spending.

Its 2016 appropriation is nearly $485 million, up almost 3 percent from the previous budget. The increase came while most other state agencies took cuts of up to 7.25 percent.

The offender population greatly exceeds the design capacity of state prison facilities.

There are 27,502 inmates now in Oklahoma facilities, a net increase of 1,213 over a year's time. The population is expected to grow by another 1,200 by this time next year.

Patton said laws passed by the Legislature this session, including one that gives judges more discretion in the sentencing of nonviolent offenders, may help with prison overcrowding years from now. Meantime, he is concerned with pressing problems. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation for men, and the highest for women.

"That's probably our biggest worry," Patton said. "We're out of room for females. What are we going to do? They are backing up in county jails now."

A total of 10,451 offenders entered the system over the last year. The net increase is smaller because many offenders are discharged every year.

There are a lack of correctional officers. Staffing levels are below 70 percent.

The high population of inmates and the shortage of staff increases stress and frustration throughout the system, Patton said.

Legal complaints about poor prison conditions have led to federal government intervention, including sanctions and monitoring, in other states, but Patton said he does not think such an action is imminent here.

"Could ACLU come in tomorrow and file a suit and suddenly we are in some kind of monitoring? Yes, that's the business we are in," he said.

Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said his organization gets a great deal of complaints from inmates, and sometimes staff, about conditions at Oklahoma prisons.

Private prisons trigger about twice as many complaints as state facilities, he said. Henderson said the profit motive for these facilities can lead to cost-cutting and "greater neglect and abuse of inmates."

One of the biggest drivers of offender population growth is the long list of crimes that carry a requirement that the prisoner serve 85 percent of the court-imposed sentence.

They actually often serve more than 90 percent because they are not allowed to accumulate good behavior credits until they hit that 85 percent mark.

State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Norman, had a bill that failed to advance that would have allowed these offenders to collect good behavior credits earlier.

He said there is nothing to prevent the state from doing this as a policy, and has asked the governor's office to require this through an executive order. No decision has been made.

"Representative Cleveland has brought this proposal to our office," said Alex Weintz, Fallin's spokesman. "As always, we are open to suggestions about ways to improve the criminal justice system."

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