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Private Prisons in Oklahoma Prove Costly

Private prisons cost the state of Oklahoma $92.7 million in 2015 alone, and almost $1 billion since 2004. With its prison system currently operating at 122 percent of capacity, the Oklahoma Board of Corrections (OBOC) will need even more private prison bed space, according to Joe M. Allbaugh, Director of the state’s Department of Corrections.

“Given the current prison population, I don’t see any long-term scenario where we won’t rely on private prisons,” he said.

However, an OBOC plan to spend more than $35 million over five years to lease a vacant 2,600-bed private prison raised the ire of state lawmakers, since the plan also included closing 15 regional work centers, shutting off a supply of cheap prisoner labor to local municipalities.

In May 2016, the OBOC unanimously approved leasing the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, about 130 miles west of Oklahoma City. The facility is owned by Nashville, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and will be one of the most up-to-date state-operated prisons, offering more programs like education and vocational training.

“Part of our job is to reintegrate these men back into society by giving them the programming they need to find a way to support themselves and their families,” Director Allbaugh stated.

As for the regional work centers that will close, Allbaugh pointed to the $17.6 million that move will save the state, adding it “can no longer afford to subsidize these communities and support the inefficient operations of the work centers.”

But state lawmakers expressed displeasure that they were given little advance notice of the proposal and not consulted on the closure of the work centers. They discussed holding the state budget hostage, but eventually decided to issue a press release and meet with Allbaugh.

State Rep. Scooter Park said the DOC director was arrogant, though.

“He didn’t want to hear from any of us,” Park remarked.

Governor Mary Fallin issued a statement supporting the spirit behind Allbaugh’s plan.

“During these difficult times, especially after a mid-year revenue failure, I expect agency directors to develop plans and make decisions so their agencies run efficiently and maximize the use of their precious appropriated resources,” she stated.

Allbaugh insisted he didn’t “like the idea of using private prisons,” adding in reference to their costs, “I don’t believe taxpayers should be paying a premium for our prisoners. I would much rather have our facilities with our staff, because I think we can house inmates more efficiently.”

CoreCivic and Florida-based GEO Group together own five private prisons in Oklahoma. The two companies, which boast combined annual revenue of $4 billion, house over 20 percent of Oklahoma’s prison population and receive $40 to $60 per diem for each state prisoner, depending on their security level.

Oklahoma claims it spends more than $100 a day to house a maximum-security prisoner at a state facility, though Allbaugh admitted there are inefficiencies that could be addressed which might reduce that cost. He added the state’s prison system has over $750 million in deferred infrastructure maintenance and repairs.

“The walls are crumbling and we continue to throw good money into obsolete equipment to get through the day,” Allbaugh said. “The overwhelming majority of the state’s prisons were not built to be prisons ... they are retrofitted boy’s homes or hospitals. Even some of the facilities that were built to be prisons are over 100 years old. We have converted every gym, dayroom and other common areas to house the population.”

Until funds are available for the state to build its own facilities, he said Oklahoma will continue to rely on private prisons – which have been criticized for several incidents.

For example, four prisoners died in a clash between rival gangs at the CoreCivic-run Cimarron Correctional Facility on September 12, 2015. It was the single deadliest prison incident in Oklahoma’s history. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.63]. Further, at least four prisoners were killed in separate incidents at CoreCivic’s Davis Correctional Facility from 2014 to 2015.

Prisoners and their families have also complained about inadequate and substandard food at private prisons as well as other issues, such as locking prisoners out of their cells during the day.

Meanwhile, according to February 2017 news reports, CoreCivic is proposing to acquire the state’s second-largest provider of halfway houses. If the purchase of California-based Center Point, Inc. goes through and is approved by the OBOC, CoreCivic would own 70 percent of all halfway house beds in Oklahoma.

Not surprisingly, CoreCivic and GEO Group have invested heavily in lobbying and political campaign contributions in Oklahoma. GEO donated $25,000 to Governor Fallin’s 2015 inauguration while CoreCivic gave $10,000. GEO also contributed $5,000 to the 2015 Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball.

According to ethics commission reports, GEO’s political action committee made donations ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 in 2015 to groups representing Rep. Jon Echols, Senator Greg Treat, Senator Randy Bass, Rep. John Michael Montgomery, Rep. Ann Coody, Rep. Jeff Coody and Senator Kim David.

Rep. Echols introduced legislation that changed state law, allowing GEO to reopen its Great Plains Correctional Institution in Hinton; the company then cut a deal with the federal Bureau of Prisons to house prisoners at the facility. The bill also removed certain Oklahoma Department of Corrections oversight measures.

State prisoners from the Oklahoma State Reformatory were moved to the North Fork Correctional Facility, which the state leased from CCA under the OBOC’s plan, beginning in July 2016. The five-year base term of the lease will cost the state an average $7.5 million per year.