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Oklahoma Legislators Not Considering Closing State Prisons, Unless They Are

by Matt Clarke

On April 7, 2009, Oklahoma State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee was accused of asking the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) to conduct a study analyzing the cost of closing certain state prisons and using private, for-profit facilities to house prisoners formerly held in those DOC prisons. Senator Coffee is a known advocate of prison privatization.

The study, issued by DOC Director Justin Jones, concluded that it would cost the state over $23 million to close the Oklahoma State Reformatory (OSR) at Granite, the James Crabtree Correctional Center (JCCC) at Helena, and the Mack Alford Correctional Center (MACC) at Stringtown.

A breakdown of the costs for closing OSR included $1.5 million for private prison beds, $2.5 million for DOC employee severance pay, $1.4 million in annual “mothball” maintenance and $3 million due to the loss of the prison farm. Further, the economic loss for the Granite area would be about $12.2 million in payroll, $72,000 in prison canteen sales tax and $120,000 in payments to the Quartz Mountain Regional Water Authority.

The cost for closing JCCC was $9.5 million. Additionally, Helena would lose $10.7 million in payroll plus $59,960 in prison canteen sales tax and $146,390 in sewage and water district payments.

For MACC, the cost was $4.7 million. Stringtown would also suffer economic losses of $10.9 million in payroll, $42,000 in prison canteen sales tax, $704,089 from the loss of prison work crews for public projects, $12,000 in water donated to the wildlife department and $627,220 in utility payments.

When confronted by Democratic legislators who represent the districts where OSR, JCCC and MACC are located, Coffee denied that he had asked the DOC for a cost analysis of prison closures, even though the DOC said the study was provided to him “per your request.” He then claimed there were no plans to close the facilities, stating it would be “virtually impossible” to do so this year “even if there was a plan.”

“The priority, from our standpoint, was always to try to save money without any preconceived notion from where,” Cof-fee explained, weakly.

He also defended a December 2008 vacation to Mexico that his top aide, Fred Morgan, had taken with Brett Robinson, a lobbyist for GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. “They had a prior relationship be-fore they were a lobbyist and a government official,” said Coffee.

However, if Senator Coffee is mainly concerned about saving money for the state and there is no prison closure plan, then why are legislators being so secretive about it? “Any talk of prison closing is based on speculation and on rumor and not based on any kind of fact,” said state Senator Anthony Sykes, who chairs the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee. “There have been no discussions, in public or private, targeting any facilities for closure.”

Yet the study reportedly requested by Senator Coffee did exactly that – it assessed the cost of closing three specific state prisons. “No decisions have been made whatsoever,” Coffee asserted. “We’re simply trying to gather all the facts.” And if those facts lead Coffee and other state lawmakers to sell out state prisons to the private prison industry, what then?

“I’m not saying we should go to all private prison beds,” said Coffee. “But I do think, in tough economic times when the capital outlay of building new prisons may be a bridge too far right now, and those [private] beds are available, we need to make use of them.”

Some state lawmakers aren’t convinced. “You get what you pay for,” said Senator Connie Johnson, who has introduced legislation that would restrict private prisons in the state. There are already six for-profit facilities located in Oklahoma, which house about 20 percent of the state’s prisoners.

Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) and CCA officials have made $24,200 in contributions to Oklahoma lawmakers and political committees from 2006 to 2008, including a $5,000 donation to Governor Brad Henry. GEO Group has donated $4,000 over the same period of time.

A study conducted for the Oklahoma legislature by the Durrant Group, at a cost of $415,000, may lend support to lawmakers who want to turn to the private sector. The study, publicly released in July 2009, found that most of the state’s prisons were in deteriorated condition and required extensive maintenance and repairs. The Durrant Group recommended that the DOC demolish three prisons and spend approximately $220 million to renovate existing facilities, plus $292 mil-lion to build an additional 2,600 prison beds.

Legislators in the cash-strapped state are more likely to consider contracting with private prison firms. “We’re keeping an open mind and examining all of our options,” said State Rep. Randy Terrill, chairman of the House Public Safety and Judiciary Committee. Reducing the prison population is not, apparently, one of those options.

Senator Coffee wasn’t pleased with the study. In a letter that he and House Speaker Chris Benge sent to the Durrant Group on June 25, 2009, they complained that “It was not apparent from the report that the possibility of acquiring existing facilities from private prison companies, public private partnerships, or contracts with private prison operators to meet an-ticipated capacity requirements was ever considered.”

Perhaps, if Oklahoma lawmakers want to avoid stress and acrimonious debate over the state’s prison system, they should try less Coffee.

Sources: Associated Press, McAlester News, Tulsa World

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