TAFT — Velita Nash says she does not have a drug or alcohol problem.

“I have a problem shoplifting clothing,” she said. “I steal clothes from a retailer.”

Nash, 40, of Lawton, is serving five years in prison and “five years on paper” — five years suspended. Nash has been a “Level 4,” the highest possible rating, at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center since April. She has completed available programs and education. Her conduct has remained good, supervisors said.

The Pardon and Parole Board issued her a parole certificate last month and recommended she be paroled Dec. 1, after one-third of her five-year prison sentence has been served.

“Parole is a slow progress,” Nash said. “I’m a nonviolent offender — there are so many nonviolent offenders incarcerated.”

Nonviolent inmates accounted for 51.8 percent of the inmates incarcerated in Oklahoma on Aug. 29, 2008, DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said.

Oklahoma prison facilities are overcrowded, underfunded and undermanned, according to the latest Department of Corrections Performance Audit.

The state’s prison population has been estimated to go from 25,416 to 26,316 in fiscal year 2008. By fiscal year 2016, that total is estimated to be 28,872, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Center.

Overcrowding is one of the biggest problems facing the state prison system, Massie said.

“Our incarceration rate is fourth in the country,” he said.

And more prisoners are on the way, according to a DOC performance audit for fiscal year 2007.

State prisoners awaiting transfer to DOC can be 1,300 on any day, the audit states. Muskogee County/City Detention Facility usually has between 45 to 50 inmates awaiting transport to DOC, said Ida Thompson, jail administrator.

The audit also states Oklahoma’s rate of female incarceration is the highest in the nation.

Nonviolent inmates are one of several concerns facing the state’s prison system, including undermanned facilities.

At Jess Dunn Correctional Center, 10 miles from Muskogee, there was one officer on duty recently for every 81 inmates, said spokeswoman Cheryl Bryant.

The facility has 84 employees but is funded to fill 106 positions. DOC has established a budgetary policy of filling 82 percent of authorized staffing levels, according to its latest performance audit report.

“We (Oklahoma prisons) are at 98.21 percent capacity,” Massie said. “Ninety-five percent or below is what you should be for management flexibility. Some people can’t be in the same cell together.”

Prison facilities that weren’t built to be prisons and how well they are retrofitted as correctional centers is of concern to the state legislature, Massie said.

Whether DOC should build some new facilities or look toward more private prisons — “that will be the debate,” Massie said.

There are at least six private prisons in the state, three of which DOC contracts with, he said. The other private prisons contract for out-of-state prisoners because they can get more revenue from other states, Massie said.

Massie said the state lost access to one private prison for that reason.

The audit shows in 2006, private prisons in the state had exactly twice the percentage of serious incidents per 1,000 inmates as that of public prisons.

Sentencing guidelines also have an impact on overcrowding prisons.

DOC statistics also show that in December 2000, 53 inmates were serving sentences for which they had to serve 85 percent of that sentence. Regardless of their progress, the law does not allow for an early parole for those inmates.

In April 2007, 3,671 state inmates were serving sentences for 85 percent crimes. The longer sentences are part of the reason for the overcrowding, experts agree. There are now 19 crimes that carry a penalty of serving 85 percent of a sentence, officials said.

The MGT performance audit found “virtually all” of the projected growth in the number of inmates “is a consequence of longer periods of imprisonment associated with the 85 percent sentence laws, accompanied by a very low parole grant rate.”

The percentage of inmates eligible for parole or commutation who were released from prison in 1991 was 40.8 percent. In 2006, the number was 18.9 percent. There has been a 39 percent drop since 2003 and a 54 percent drop since 1991, according to DOC.

Parole decision doesn’t mean immediate release

A Pardon and Parole Board recommendation for parole doesn’t necessarily mean an inmate will be paroled.

The number of paroles or commutations signed by the governor has fallen from 2,868 in 2001 to 846 in 2006, a 71 percent drop, according to DOC records.

There is a backlog because of overcrowding throughout the system.

But because of overcrowding, Nash can’t move to a halfway house and prepare further for re-entry into society.

Nash completed a program at Eddie Warrior called “Boundaries” and says she’s learned to set boundaries for herself.

She plans to move to Oklahoma City if she can get paroled, instead of returning to Lawton, where she said it would be harder for her to stay in boundaries she sets “and make the right decisions.”

She’s a good cook and hopes to take training in culinary arts and get a job as a cook.

It’s hard for her to understand if the DOC budget is so stretched why the governor doesn’t parole more people recommended for parole.

Nash said she knows he is a very busy man and has to study parole recommendations in addition to his other duties. But the delay is costing the state, she said.

Oklahoma Constitution impedes parole process

Paul Sund, spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, agrees he’s the only governor in the nation who has to sign every parole.

The performance audit recommended removing the governor from the parole process. But, there’s a hitch.

The governor’s personally signing off on each parole “is in the Oklahoma Constitution,” Sund said. “Our Constitution says the governor has the final word on parole.”

Reading each probation file is very time consuming, so Sund says the governor can see both sides of the issue.

Victims of crime enjoy one more set of eyes before someone is released to the streets, Sund said.

“The bottom line — the people will decide this issue (in a statewide vote),” he said.

After the Pardon and Parole Board recommends a parole, all information on a parolee application has to be verified, including where they would live and where they would work, Then the governor assigns an attorney to review the file and make a recommendation. Then the governor goes through the file.

Sometimes its months and months before the review process is over and it’s in the governor’s office, he said.

“We get several hundred every month,” Sund said. “Some have expressed frustration how long it takes.”

But the governor wants to be right, he said.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Sund said.

Costly incarceration

Cost of incarceration in FY 2007 for state inmates according to the security ranking of each facility — per inmate:

• Maximum — $69.23 daily and $25,270 annually.

• Medium — $56.02 daily and $20,447 annually.

• Minimum — $51.99 daily and $18,976 annually (includes Jess Dunn and Eddie Warrior).

• Community — $53.79 daily and $19,634 annually (includes one facility in Muskogee).

• Work Centers — $40.64 daily and $14,835 annually.

DOC’s FY 2009 appropriated budget is $503,000,000.

Source: Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

On the web

An Oklahoma Department of Corrections performance audit for 2007, authorized by the Legislative Service Bureau of the Oklahoma Legislature, can be found on the DOC Web site.

Crowded cells

An example of the overcrowding is reflected in DOC records on Nov. 10, which reflect in part:

• Jess Dunn was two inmates from being at capacity of 982. The neighboring women’s facility, Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, has a capacity of 783 and held 772 inmates.

• James Crabtree Correctional Center’s capacity was 871 inmates but housed 902 inmates.

• Joseph Harp Correctional Center’s capacity was 1,307 but held 1,377.

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