Report Reveals Troubled State Prison System

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Inmates line up to receive medication at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. (Photo by Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Severe staffing shortages and operational inefficiencies within Oklahoma’s prison system are placing a legal and financial burden on the state, reviewers from the Legislative Office of Budget Transparency wrote in a draft report released Thursday after- midday.

The 59-page operational assessment notes that several state prisons are routinely staffed at less than 50% of the recommended level. The agency has taken some steps to counter the risk of violence in particularly understaffed facilities, including housing older inmates together. But the reviewers found a strong negative correlation between violent incidents and the number of correctional officers on duty.

“There appears to be a tipping point where the number (of correctional officers) is too low to handle the prison population, which could lead to an increase in violence,” the report said.

In April, the Department of Corrections announced that it would implement a 30% wage increase for correctional officers, raising the starting wage from $15.74 to $20.46 per hour. Beyond raising salaries and stepping up recruitment efforts, the agency has not developed a comprehensive strategy to address staffing shortages, the report notes.

Reviewers found widespread cost disparities among comparable state prisons. While all state prisons use a main menu, annual food costs per inmate ranged from $900 at Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy to $1,425 at Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown.

“The DOC administration revealed that it does not examine cost differences between facilities, making it unlikely that cost-cutting practices will be replicated,” the report said. Reviewers identified $56.6 million in operating savings not found in the agency’s budget.

The report recommends that the Department of Corrections use a prison population projection as the basis for budget requests. While the state prison population has decreased by 17% over the past five years, the agency’s budget has increased by 12%.

“Even after adjusting for inflation, the DOC should have realized savings from a decrease in the prison population,” the report said.

Agency officials told reviewers they had not made any prison population forecasts in recent years, citing uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Supreme Court’s McGirt decision. States and criminal justice reforms as the 780 state issue.

The report notes that the agency’s fiscal year 2022 budget included $26.6 million for 754 vacant positions.

“Redirecting these funds to larger investments in staff or facilities may be more helpful to the correctional system,” the reviewers wrote.

The Department of Corrections’ decision last summer to vacate the William S. Key Correctional Facility in Fort Supply drew heavy criticism from lawmakers in northwest Oklahoma, who called the closure a short seen and harmful to the local economy.

Reviewers wrote that a “strong argument” could be made to shut down the facility based on estimated repair costs. They also noted that the prison was the third most efficiently run minimum-security facility in the state.

The report proposes that lawmakers and the Department of Corrections work together to create a prison closure decision matrix. The chart would allow officials to weigh a facility’s infrastructure needs, proximity to other prisons and local economic impact before deciding to leave or reassign a facility.

Other discoveries

The agency’s current offender management system is outdated and could result in prisoners being released on the incorrect date, the reviewers wrote.

Prison staff currently rely on manual sentence calculations to determine when an inmate should be released. The Department of Corrections reported an estimated error rate of 1-1.5%.

The agency is updating its offender management system to be fully electronic, a multi-year undertaking that is expected to be fully implemented by 2025. Reviewers wrote that the successful implementation of the electronic system is “essential to public safety” and the effectiveness of the agency. operations.

Using data on state arrests and prison admissions, the reviewers made an independent forecast of the prison population. They project that the state’s prison population could decrease by 17% over the next five years. The calculation does not include inmates housed in private facilities.

Proposed legislative reforms include:

• Ask the DOC to include a one-year prison population projection in its annual budget request.

• Require DOC to report staffing data by institution annually.

• Expand the authority of the Board of Corrections to exercise direct oversight and accountability over the Department of Corrections.

• Request DOC to quantify “funded but vacant” positions and hold these funds in reserve until the position is filled.

• Require the Legislative Assembly and the Department of Corrections to establish a matrix of criteria to be used in deciding whether to close or consolidate correctional facilities.

Proposed changes at the agency level include:

• Produce a publicly available quarterly report on the state of the correctional system’s operational capacity and the total operational cost of the system.

• Development of a facility master plan that incorporates facility design options to maximize manpower.

• Formally establish data sharing with other criminal justice entities, including courts and law enforcement.

• Modify budgeting practices to specify individual facilities receiving program funding or operating funds.

• Create a system-wide incentive plan to incentivize inmates to leave less desirable institutions for those who benefit from enhanced training, education and workforce rehabilitation programs.

DOC Response

In a May 31 letter to the Legislative Office of Budget Transparency, the agency said it “supports the recommendations and recognizes room for improvement.”

The Department of Corrections questioned the Examiner’s formula for projecting future prison populations and felt that the assessment should include private prisons.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public policy issues facing the state.

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