MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

January 5, 2014

State's politicians wary of tackling prison reform

Fear of being seen as soft on criminals hamstrings efforts

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — When Ged Wright was first elected to the Oklahoma Senate in the 1980s, the Republican thought the 8,000 inmates and $100 million annual price tag for the state's prison system were too much.

Over a 25-year career that included stints as a member of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission and the Board of Corrections, Wright has seen Oklahoma's prison population explode to nearly 27,000 inmates and the state's corrections budget approach a half-billion dollars each year.

Oklahoma legislators in 2012 passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, intended to trim the state's costs through a leaner Department of Corrections, while still providing critical services to inmates. The Associated Press, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, reviewing 8,000 pages of JRI-related documents obtained from Gov. Mary Fallin, found her administration at times undermined the initiative, much of which remains undone or unfunded.

But even if all the JRI initiatives had been fully implemented, the package of reforms was only designed to curb inmate growth, not stop it. Many contend any real progress on inmate growth won't be achieved without a complete overhaul of the state's harsh criminal sentencing codes, a major political challenge in a conservative state with a tough-on-crime reputation that pre-dates statehood.

Of the state's $7.1 billion budget this year, the Department of Corrections consumed more than $460 million, an amount most experts say is woefully inadequate to run crumbling prisons bursting at the seams with mostly nonviolent offenders.

Prison guards, whose pay starts at $11.83 per hour, work mandatory 60-hour work weeks at about half of the state's 17 prisons, where staffing ratios of officers to offenders are among the worst in the nation and veteran guards say morale is at an all-time low.

"Nobody's old enough in the Legislature, practically, to remember McAlester in the early 1970s," Wright said, referring to a three-day prison riot at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the summer of 1973 that left three inmates dead, more than 20 guards and inmates injured and a dozen buildings burned to the ground. "We've got the potential for that again.

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