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Oklahoma prisons boss looks to reduce solitary confinement

Sep 9, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Nearly 1,200 Oklahoma prison inmates who spend 23 hours a day locked in their cell — including some of the most dangerous offenders — soon could see more recreational time under a new pilot program at the state’s maximum-security prison.

The shift away from restricted housing or solitary confinement is a growing trend in the prison industry, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said Tuesday.

More than 1,180 Oklahoma prison inmates currently are confined to their cell with just five hours a week of solitary recreation time, Patton said. This includes nearly all of the 642 inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, 360 inmates at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville and 180 inmates at the private Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing.

While Patton said there are both legal and budgetary motivations, there also is a moral obligation.

y SEAN MURPHY Associated Press | Posted: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 12:00 am

Oklahoma prisons boss looks to reduce solitary confinement

Patton

OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly 1,200 Oklahoma prison inmates who spend 23 hours a day locked in their cell — including some of the most dangerous offenders — soon could see more recreational time under a new pilot program at the state’s maximum-security prison.

The shift away from restricted housing or solitary confinement is a growing trend in the prison industry, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said Tuesday.

More than 1,180 Oklahoma prison inmates currently are confined to their cell with just five hours a week of solitary recreation time, Patton said. This includes nearly all of the 642 inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, 360 inmates at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville and 180 inmates at the private Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing.

While Patton said there are both legal and budgetary motivations, there also is a moral obligation.

“No matter what side of the pendulum you’re on — conservative, liberal or centrist — placing people in a single-cell environment for 23 hours a day is not a formula for success,” Patton said. “Some of our highest rates of recidivism are those that are released from restricted housing environments with no programming and no social interaction.”

Many of the inmates in restricted housing suffer from mental illnesses, while others have caused problems and violated rules at other facilities.

“I don’t want to release offenders (into society) from maximum custody,” Patton said. “We should be releasing offenders from community corrections centers, from work-release centers. At the very least from medium custody.”

Patton has launched the program at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary with 10 inmates, and he hopes to continue ramping up the number of inmates by phasing them into more and more time outside of their cells.

The 45 inmates on death row will not be eligible, Patton said.

While groups representing inmates and their families support the idea, some voiced concern about how it can be done safely, especially when there is a shortage of correctional staff at prisons across the state.

“How are they going to make more work for the staff and keep everybody safe?” asked Lynn Howell, director of the Oklahoma chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.

Patton said once the program is ramped up, it should be less of a burden on staff, although he acknowledged there could be an increased threat of violence in group dining and recreation areas.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what’s right,” Patton said. “We can’t be afraid.”

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