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Budget Hike to Ease Oklahoma DOC Woes

15-Jun-2015

Oklahoma prisons are in dire straits because of overcrowding and understaffing. It is a fact we have written about several times before: 

  • When an independent news site called Oklahoma prison riots "imminent
  • When Governor Fallin's office said she "wasn't concerned" about the state of Oklahoma prisons despite the recent attack on a female case worker at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center
  • When Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton spoke with the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this year about how projected budget cuts would bring further harm to an already beleaguered DOC.

The fears of what can happen when a prison is overcrowded, understaffed, and in poor condition came to fruition last week when a riot erupted at the Cimmaron Correctional Center in Cushing, involving hundreds of inmates and sending 11 inmates to the hospital. While 4 were treated and released, 7 others were hospitalized at least overnight.

Overcrowded, understaffed prisons are not safe for inmates. They are not safe for DOC employees, and they are not safe for teachers, caseworkers, and others in the prisons.

While last year, Governor Fallin seemed to ignore concerns about understaffing in Oklahoma prisons, it seems as if this year, the state legislature finally listened to the concerns of the Department of Corrections. While state agencies took cuts of more than 7 percent, the Oklahoma DOC received a 3 percent budget increase--$14 million greater than the previous budget.

According to the DOC Director, the agency will use the budget increase to hire additional staff and add more beds for the continually growing inmate population. Currently, Oklahoma prisons are staffed at less than 70 percent. With prison guard pay in Oklahoma among the lowest in the nation, and lack of staffing requiring long hours for corrections officers, it is unsurprising that the state has difficulty in finding and retaining qualified corrections officers. Couple declining staff numbers with a skyrocketing inmate population, and the staff to inmate ratio becomes one of the worst in the nation.

Oklahoma has one of the highest overall incarceration rates in the nation; it has the ignominious distinction of having the highest female incarceration rate in the United States. In Oklahoma, we put more women and mothers in prison than any other state in the nation. Our high female incarceration rate is often due to stringent drug laws and harsh sentencing for even low-level drug crimes, lack of substance abuse treatment options, and lack of resources for victims of domestic violence.

Measures aimed at reducing the prison population could also help ease some of the burdens of overcrowding and understaffing. One law enacted this year is the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows judges to deviate from "mandatory minimums" for certain people convicted on nonviolent crimes. 



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