The director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections stood before the Oklahoma Board of Corrections on Tuesday and described a prison system in crisis.
In a 58-page report delivered to the board at their monthly meeting, Joe Allbaugh and several department officials outlined for more than an hour issues that have been plaguing the state's criminal justice system for decades. Those problems, they told the board, are about to overwhelm the system.
“We’re drawing that line in the sand, that at some point we’re going to be incapable of taking more prisoners in our existing system," Allbaugh said to reporters.
The report showed aging facilities, low staffing, ever-increasing medical costs for aging inmates, flat budgeting and decreasing rates of paroles have all helped lead to a prison system that may soon reach a breaking point.
“The seriousness of the situation is overwhelming," said Michael Roach, chairman of the board.
The state's prison population has steadily risen for years, and Allbaugh announced in April that more than 62,000 inmates were in state custody, a record number for Oklahoma.
That figure included more than 26,000 inmates who were incarcerated in a state or private prison or halfway house. Another 1,700 were in county jails awaiting transfer to a state facility. Nearly 34,000 were outside prison walls, either on parole or probation or in a community supervision program or on GPS monitoring.
The department's budget has remained relatively flat for years now, and as the inmate population and the costs to house them continue to increase, funding must be stripped from other areas of the corrections budget.
“If you increase one slice of the pie, you decrease another, because the dollars are constant," said Laura Pittman, director of population, programs and strategic planning.
The department has been plagued in recent years with crumbling infrastructure, largely due to the fact several state prisons are repurposed hospitals, schools and orphanages that are in some cases a century old. Pittman said the department has no room in the budget for emergency repair costs when something breaks down, such as busted water pipes or failing boiler systems.
Historically, the department has either stopped hiring to cut down on personnel costs or created temporary beds, Pittman said.
“It’s astronomical," said Scott Crow, chief of operations, describing the amount of ignored maintenance needs in prisons across the state. "I mean, there’s just been patchwork after patchwork just to keep it patched together."
As a result, Allbaugh said his department will have to rely less on temporary beds, which are often placed in areas reserved for activities and education programs. This not only eliminates program space, it can also decrease safety.
Kameron Harvanek, warden at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown, said at one point he had inmates housed in the common area of the cell blocks, allowing them access to the security panel that opens the cell doors.
“They were able to access the cell blocks, and they’re able to let offenders leave their cells at any time they wanted to," he said. "So, even when we said lock down, there was no such thing as lock down.”
The population strain also means the department will have to begin discharging inmates sooner than planned.
“I don’t think the public fully understands what we’re doing by putting people in the Department of Corrections and really forcing us into a decision to say who is being let out on the back end early," said board member Adam Luck.
“What do we do? If the only answer is letting more people out on the back end, somehow that just doesn’t seem good enough," he said.
"Maybe five years from now we build another prison," Luck added. "But again I wonder, is that the best possible thing we can do?”
Allbaugh said the state is faced with a decision either to fix the department's funding, possibly through a special session, and build three new prisons to meet projected population growth or to reform its criminal justice system. Allbaugh estimates the cost of building three new facilities and staffing them at $1.9 billion.
“Either the (political) will (for criminal justice reform) will muster or we will have a serious event," Allbaugh said. "It’s going to happen one way or another. You can’t keep packing people into facilities that are decrepit and expect everybody to behave.”
Graham Lee Brewer