On January 4, 2008, MGT of America, Inc. released a performance audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC). The 285-page report cost $844,000 and provided several clues as to how the prison system could improve and save money. Chief among its recommendations were that the DOC contract for additional private prison beds to ease its overcrowding problem, and that the governor be removed from active participation in the parole process for most prisoners.
The reason for recommending further private prison contracting in the state with the second-highest private prison incarceration rate (23.8%) was the desperate need for additional bed space and the long lead-time for state planners. If the per diem rate per prisoner including direct and indirect expenses was held down to $61.03, the cost would not exceed that of new prison construction. However, recent disagreements with private prison company Cornell Corrections led to the firm’s abrupt cancellation of its contract with the state. The DOC scrambled to find housing for prisoners from the Cornell facility, but was hampered due to its overcrowding problem. Thus, the report recommended deleting the termination-at-will clause from future private prison contracts.
One nagging problem in the DOC is the age of its facilities, several of which were not originally intended to serve as adult prisons. Older prisons and those converted from other uses tend to require more staff and maintenance than facilities with more modern architecture. Further, staffing is a major issue in the DOC.
While the DOC prison population has grown, staffing has shrunk. This is partly due to low starting wages, competition from private prisons and other employers, and a lengthy hiring process with a long waiting period without pay. Poor staff retention rates result from mandatory rotation shift schedules, required overtime and high job stress. As the prisons become understaffed the workload for remaining employees increases, which magnifies stress and compromises safety. At the time of the report, DOC staffing rates were as low as 61% at some facilities.
A bizarre funding procedure was also partly responsible for staff shortages and lack of facility maintenance. Each year the Oklahoma Legislature underfunds the DOC. Then, late in the budgetary cycle, state lawmakers pass a supplemental funding bill. This is seen as an effort to control overspending, but it makes it impossible for DOC officials to effectively plan expenditures. As a result the DOC leaves vacant staff positions unfilled and fails to fund required maintenance until the supplementary money comes through.
However, that funding may arrive so late that new hires are not placed and maintenance work is not contracted before the DOC is required to return unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year. The problem is then handed off to the next underfunded budget cycle. This is why the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has had funding for roof repairs in its budget requests for over a decade, yet still has leaky roofs.
The audit recommended that the legislature fully fund the DOC each fiscal year; this was supported by the report’s finding that the DOC was very efficient in its use of funding, with per diem prisoner costs 33% below the national average. Oklahoma spends 7% of its state budget on prison expenditures, much more than most states. However, this is due to Oklahoma’s extremely high incarceration rate – the third highest in the nation – not because of excessive spending by the DOC.
The DOC’s long-term solution to the overcrowding problem is to build more prisons. To that end, it has recommended a 25-year, $309.6 million bond package for the construction of 4,329 new prison beds, some of which would replace older facilities. This would reduce daily incarceration costs by $5 to $10 per prisoner, according to state Rep. Gus Blackwell, who held an interim study on possible solutions to the overcrowding crisis.
A very low parole rate has been a major contributing factor to the state’s prison overcrowding problem. The overall parole rate in 2006 was 18.9%, among the lowest in the nation. Part of the reason for the low parole rate is that unlike any other state, in Oklahoma the governor must sign off on each and every grant of parole. If the parole rate was increased to 30% the prison population would only grow by 366 prisoners by 2016, while a parole-grant rate of 40% would result in a reduction of more than 600 prisoners by 2016. Therefore, the report recommended that state law be changed to preclude the governor from having to approve paroles except in the most serious cases.
Another contributing factor in the parole process is an 85% sentencing law enacted in 1999 in response to a federal initiative that bribed states into requiring prisoners to serve a greater percentage of their sentences. If the 85% law and 18.9% parole rate remain unchanged, the DOC population is expected to expand from 25,416 in FY 2007 to 28,872 by FY 2016.
Assuming those figures are correct and no older prisons are closed, the DOC’s expansion plans will allow prison bed space to catch up with the projected prison population in FY 2011. Until then, MGT recommended that the DOC, which already contracts for 4,569 private prison beds, contract for additional space to cover the shortfall – presently around 1,300 beds.
Much of the current shortfall is caused by a severe lack of maximum-security beds. Under the current expansion plan and population projections, sufficient maximum-security beds will not become available until FY 2012. To alleviate this shortage the DOC uses overrides to reclassify maximum-security prisoners to medium security. This policy, as well as the DOC’s practice of not recognizing prison gangs, may have had the unintended consequence of fostering prisoner-on-prisoner violence, which is endemic in Oklahoma. The MGT report suggested that the DOC limit its use of classification overrides and develop a gang intelligence section.
Exacerbating the maximum-security crowding crunch is the DOC’s policy of keeping all maximum-security prisoners on lockdown. The report recommended that the DOC change the policy and use lockdowns only for administrative and disciplinary segregation purposes.
Oklahoma also has the nation’s highest rate for incarcerating women. The report noted this might be due to a lack of female-appropriate housing in local jails and the use of delayed sentencing as an alternative to local incarceration. Defendants who fail to successfully complete delayed sentencing automatically receive prison terms. The report recommended that the DOC survey the availability of housing for female prisoners in local jails, and monitor the use of delayed sentencing for female defendants.
The staff shortage and gang problems discussed in the MGT report have especially dire consequences for DOC prisoners. Tempers flare when “nonessential” activities such as recreation are cancelled due to a shortage of guards, and prison gangs were implicated in the murders of six Oklahoma prisoners in FY 2006. Violence has continued to plague the state’s prison system.
For example, four fights broke out at Oklahoma prisons in June 2008, resulting in the hospitalization of ten prisoners. The assaults, which included multiple stabbings, occurred at the Oklahoma State Reformatory, Dick Conner Corr. Center, Oklahoma State Penitentiary and Mack Alford Corr. Center. “What we’re experiencing now are simply warning signs that we have a very explosive situation in the Department of Corrections that the governor and legislative leadership needs to pay attention to,” said Scott Barger, with the state’s Public Employees Association.
Previously, on May 19, 2008, two prisoners at the Oklahoma State Reformatory were killed and a dozen injured during a major fight. The likelihood of such violence is greatly reduced when proper staffing levels are maintained. Therefore, the DOC’s first priority should be to establish a sufficient prisoner-to-staff ratio.
Sources: Performance Audit of the Department of Corrections for the Legislative Service Bureau of the Oklahoma Legislature – Final Report dated December 31, 2007 by MGT of America Inc., www.kwso.com, www.newsok.com, Associated Press, Tulsa World, www.certops.com, Norman Transcript, McAlester News-Capital
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