MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

June 22, 2013

Outgoing prisons chief warns of inmate increase

LEXINGTON  (AP) — The growing number of Oklahoma prison inmates will continue to pose problems like increased medical costs, a lack of bed space and a backup of offenders in the state’s county jails, the Oklahoma’s outgoing prison chief warned the Board of Corrections on Friday.

Justin Jones, who announced earlier this week that he plans to resign after 36 years with the agency, made the comments during the board’s regular meeting at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.

“We had a tremendous growth year, which is causing us many issues,” Jones told the board.

Jones’ resignation comes after highly publicized clashes with the governor’s office and legislative leaders over the agency’s finances and the growing use of private prisons to house state inmates.

Figures released by the Department of Corrections on Friday show the number of inmates has increased by 641 from the same time last year, and Jones said a majority of those are being sent to private prison facilities or kept in county jails through contracts with local sheriffs. The number of inmates in private prisons has increased from 4,775 in May 2012 to 5,453 at the end of last month.

The private prison lobby is an influential one at the state Capitol, and many lawmakers support shifting more inmates into private facilities, a concept Jones refused to endorse.

“Just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethically and morally right,” Jones said after the meeting. “Sometimes it’s easy to privatize people that don’t have a voice, and it’s easy to privatize the disenfranchised of the world who don’t have a voice. Sometimes there’s a conflict of ideologies there.”

Jones also warned that giving too much leverage to the private prison industry could pose problems for the state down the road.

“I think any time you get over-leveraged and you increase the percentage to the point that the provider can make certain requests or demands, whether it’s a per diem increase or something else, and you have no other options, what are you going to do?” Jones said.

Nearly 22 percent of Oklahoma’s 26,500 inmates are currently being housed in private prisons. According to the state’s contract with Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the U.S., Oklahoma pays about $58 per day for maximum-security inmates and $44 per day for medium-security inmates. The rates are slightly lower for another private prison contractor, GEO Group, said DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.

The Board of Corrections voted Friday to create a three-member panel of board members to launch a national search for a new director, and new Board Chairman Kevin Gross said he expected other “interested constituents” to play a role in that process.

“I think someone with the governor’s office, potentially a legislator, potentially a warden or somebody inside the department who can represent the interests of the management and folks within the department,” said Gross, one of Gov. Mary Fallin’s five appointees on the seven-member board.

Gross said he expects the search process to take several months and that whoever is selected will have to be confirmed by the state Senate once the legislative session begins in February.

“We will likely consider one of the internal senior management people as interim director once Justin departs,” Gross said.

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