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Tulsa World editorial: State moves away from 23-hour-a-day lock-down prisons

Sep 14, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

A new philosophy for Oklahoma prisons?
Oklahoma Corrections Director Robert Patton has launched a pilot program aimed at decreasing the number of state prison inmates locked in their cells 23 hours a da
Ten inmates are part of an initial incentive-driven program at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary. If the inmates behave, they can work their way gradually to less restrictive situations. It’s not tennis courts and foot massages. The end goal would be some sort of menial jobs inside the institution instead of staring at the walls all day long.
Eventually, Patton imagines some 1,200 inmates in three institutions coming out of their current conditions, which allow them only one hour a day outside of their cells for hygiene and exercise. Some of the inmates share cells. Others are kept in solitary cells.

A new philosophy for Oklahoma prisons?

By World's Editorial Writers | Posted: Sunday, September 13, 2015 12:00 am

Oklahoma Corrections Director Robert Patton has launched a pilot program aimed at decreasing the number of state prison inmates locked in their cells 23 hours a da

Ten inmates are part of an initial incentive-driven program at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary. If the inmates behave, they can work their way gradually to less restrictive situations. It’s not tennis courts and foot massages. The end goal would be some sort of menial jobs inside the institution instead of staring at the walls all day long.

Eventually, Patton imagines some 1,200 inmates in three institutions coming out of their current conditions, which allow them only one hour a day outside of their cells for hygiene and exercise. Some of the inmates share cells. Others are kept in solitary cells.

Then-OSP Warden Gary Maynard instituted the 23-hour-a-day lockdown in early 1986.

Patton says the shift is a national trend reflecting legal and moral motivations.

He also emphasizes that the move makes sense for society. Many of the inmates being held under the extreme conditions will eventually return to life outside of prison. Which seems like a better model for success for returning those inmates to the streets, he asks, allowing them some minimal mobility to allow for socialization, training and mental health treatment or locking them in cages around the clock?

“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.

Inmates who are denied access to programs and interaction are more likely to commit new crimes on the streets and return to prison, he says.

We aren’t shedding any tears for maximum-security inmates. They earned their way into prison in the first place, and many of them earned their way into maximum security, typically through violent behavior behind bars.

Our interest is centered on two other groups involved in this decision: correctional officers and the public.

If Patton wants to give inmates more time out of their cells, he must ensure it can only be done in a secure environment to protect the employees in his woefully understaffed institutions.

We’ve been around Oklahoma long enough to remember that Maynard’s decision to lock down the penitentiary wasn’t made lightly. It came a few months after 80 inmates stabbed three guards, took over two wings of the penitentiary, caused about $400,000 in damage and held seven hostages for about 16 hours to protest prison conditions. The lockdown should be reversed, only if it can be done safely, and we’re not convinced that current staffing levels will allow that assurance.

For the public, we can see some logic in Patton’s reasoning. Inmates walk in the front door as criminals. Caging them virtually around the clock seems like an unlikely strategy for bending them away from a return to crime when their sentences end. Some will argue that making prisons as unpleasant as legally possible will discourage inmates from ever wanting to return, but that logic doesn’t bear out statistically: Recidivism rates are higher for inmates from extreme security settings. Lock-down incarceration sets the stage for more crime.

In the end, we want a prison system that is legal, efficient, inexpensive, and safe. We want it run in such a way as to discourage future crime. If Patton thinks he has a better way to achieve those goals, God bless him, and good luck. He better be right.

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