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Does Political Spending by Private Prison Firms in Oklahoma Influence Prison Reform?

Does Political Spending by Private Prison Firms in Oklahoma Influence Prison Reform?

by Joe Watson

Three private prison corporations, including the nation’s two largest, have contributed more than a combined $400,000 to political candidates in Oklahoma since 2004, prompting at least one prominent state legislator to question the correlation between political spending and the state’s stalled Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a prison reform law enacted in 2012.

“Follow the money,” said state Senator Constance Johnson. “This whole notion of special interests having undue influence on the legislative process, this is proof.” Johnson, a long-time advocate of sentencing reform, said the Oklahoma legislature has increasingly become “pro-private prisons, pro-enhanced felonies; the thing I stand up and argue about all the time.”

A Tulsa World analysis of campaign finance reports disclosed by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, published on January 6, 2014, revealed that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The GEO Group, Inc. and Avalon Correctional Services, Inc. together donated $414,397 to the campaign coffers of Governor Mary Fallin, Lt. Governor Todd Lamb, House Speaker T.W. Shannon and at least 78 other state lawmakers, including the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Clark Jolley.

The analysis found that Fallin topped the list of recipients, with $38,250 in contributions from the private prison companies. Shannon was second with $35,950, though his donations included thousands of dollars earmarked for the annual Speaker’s Ball gala. Jolley’s $29,301 in contributions placed him third on the list of private prison payments.

An open records request to Governor Fallin’s office produced documents that revealed private prison executives had expressed concerns over a provision in the 2012 prison reform law that provides for housing low-level offenders who violate the terms of their release in “intermediate sanctions facilities.” The documents indicated the companies wanted for-profit halfway houses to be considered for the program. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.34].

In fact, a private prison lobbyist working on behalf of GEO Group emailed Fallin’s office in April 2012 to request a meeting with the governor. The email was released by Fallin’s office along with more than 8,000 other documents in response to public records requests concerning the lack of progress of Oklahoma’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

“We would like to hear your thoughts on JRI and future impact on corrections,” lobbyist Brett Robinson wrote.

According to an internal document from Fallin’s office, one “possible concern” of the law was that it “excludes private facilities.”

The released documents also revealed that Avalon began lobbying to house intermediate sanction offenders in 2011. The company’s campaign was outlined in a March 2013 email from Avalon Chief Operating Officer Brian Costello to Governor Fallin’s staff.

Overall, Avalon Correctional Services topped the three companies in political spending since 2004, contributing $156,085 to campaign coffers and related interests. GEO Group, a close second, donated $143,411 to political candidates and committees. Lobbyists representing Avalon and CCA jointly contributed $63,450 to Oklahoma campaigns, while lobbyists and employees of CCA spent another $51,000 on a variety of political causes.

CCA operates three prisons in Oklahoma – the Cimarron Correctional Facility, Davis Correctional Facility and North Fork Correctional Facility; a fourth CCA prison, Diamondback, is currently vacant. GEO Group operates the Great Plains Correctional Facility (housing federal prisoners) and the Lawton Correctional Facility.

Fallin, Shannon and Jolley insisted there was no correlation between the companies’ donations and their support for privatization of prisons and community supervision.

A spokeswoman for Governor Fallin’s campaign said contributions from private prison firms represented less than one-half of one percent of the nearly $11 million the governor had received since 2002.

“The $10.9 million raised from the 2002 campaign to the present are donations received from hardworking Oklahomans of every background who have supported Mary Fallin.... Pick any industry and odds are it will have donated the most to Mary Fallin simply because she has been around the longest and run and won more campaigns than her current peers at the Capitol,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email.

“Campaign donations do not affect the way Gov. Fallin makes policy decisions, period,” added spokesman Alex Weintz.

“A majority of the donation funds from this industry (roughly $22,500) were donated toward a nonprofit to encourage the mentoring of our youth through the Speaker’s Ball,” said Joe Griffin, a spokesman for House Speaker Shannon. “People and entities donate to campaigns because they believe in the candidate’s ideals – not because the candidate necessarily believes in theirs.”

“My vote is not for sale,” declared Senator Jolley. “It never has been. It never will be.” He said Avalon employees live in his district in Edmond, Oklahoma, which could explain why he receives so much in donations from them.

Oklahoma’s spending on private prisons and privately-run halfway houses has risen moderately during the same time period covered by the campaign finance disclosures. In fiscal year 2012, the state spent $73 million on private prisons and $14 million on halfway house expenditures, up 22% and 16%, respectively, since 2004.

In an April 24, 2014 article posted on the ACLU’s website, former Oklahoma DOC director Justin Jones harshly criticized the private prison industry. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.20]. Jones resigned as the DOC’s top official in October 2013, and his opposition to for-profit prisons was widely considered to be a contributing factor to his decision to step down.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative slowly plods along, with a July 2014 report on steps to implement JRI by Harvard graduate student Adam Luck, prepared at the request of Governor Fallin’s office, resulting in renewed hope that the state will finally engage in meaningful prison reform despite the influence of the private prison industry.




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