Oklahoma CURE

Ensuring that prisons are used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have all the resources they need to turn their lives around.
GET INVOLVED

Connect with us

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN

Sean Wallace: Why corrections should be a higher state budget priority

Jan 28, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

With the exception of the year when rioting inmates nearly burned Oklahoma State Penitentiary to the ground, Oklahoma’s corrections employees will tell you they are hard-pressed to remember a worse year in Department of Corrections history than 2014. The DOC is in desperate need of help from our lawmakers.

To recap the year, it began with promise when lawmakers welcomed new agency Director Robert Patton to Oklahoma by providing the DOC $13 million in emergency funding to scrape through another fiscal year. Unfortunately, in exchange, the director assured lawmakers he wouldn’t come back asking for more money the next year.

With the exception of the year when rioting inmates nearly burned Oklahoma State Penitentiary to the ground, Oklahoma’s corrections employees will tell you they are hard-pressed to remember a worse year in Department of Corrections history than 2014. The DOC is in desperate need of help from our lawmakers.

To recap the year, it began with promise when lawmakers welcomed new agency Director Robert Patton to Oklahoma by providing the DOC $13 million in emergency funding to scrape through another fiscal year. Unfortunately, in exchange, the director assured lawmakers he wouldn’t come back asking for more money the next year.

With that great deal in hand, lawmakers stripped the $13 million out of the 2015 DOC budget and gave the agency only the money necessary to fund the first state employee pay raise in eight years, which amounted to less than a dollar an hour for starting corrections officers and left out 35 percent of agency employees.

Director Patton took over an agency barely getting by on what was left after years of budget cuts. The agency had already shed 25 percent of its workforce in six years and those who remained worked more hours, managed more inmates, had more duties than ever and were increasingly frustrated with the deteriorating conditions.

For better or worse, the director’s first order of business was to move the 3,000 state inmates housed in county jails into state prisons. That effort would save the agency the millions it was paying to counties every year, but also would obviously make the already overcrowded and understaffed prisons even more volatile. Prison staff stuffed beds into every nook and cranny they could find without getting any help to manage the increased population.

At the same time, the DOC looked to Oklahoma law for a solution to the overcrowding. According to Oklahoma Watch, 1,500 offenders, most of whom were convicted of violent and sex crimes, had as much as 12 years of previously revoked “good time” credits restored to them in order to get them out of prison. One released offender subsequently raped seven women in Tulsa.

Besides releasing inmates, the agency has also saved money by seeking every possible means to reduce personnel costs. They’ve done this by requiring fewer officers to work during a shift, closing towers, eliminating perimeter security, increasing caseloads and more, all while mandating each facility reduce overtime.

Amid this, Oklahoma gained worldwide infamy in its execution of a death row inmate, which the penitentiary warden described as a “bloody mess.” Its female prison in McLoud was reported to have the highest rate of sexual assaults in the nation. At a prison in Lexington, an inmate took a staff member hostage during an escape attempt, the same prison where an officer and Marine Corps veteran working the mandatory 20 hours of overtime per week was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel driving to work. And inmates regularly escaped from prisons all over the state.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is failing in its mission “to protect the public, the employee, and the offender.” The agency, doing everything it can not to ask for help from lawmakers this year, has submitted a request for an additional $85 million for next year to properly house and secure our prisons and lawmakers face a $300 million budget hole.

This session, we need commonsense, meaningful changes to the sentencing laws that lock up far too many drug-addicted and mentally ill Oklahomans. Only with a reduced prison population will the DOC begin to tip the balance back toward adequately staffed prisons and restoring public safety so that our most dangerous criminals are locked away as they should be.

CLICK for link