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Private prisons may get maximum security inmates

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A bill quietly moving through the Oklahoma Legislature would allow maximum security inmates to be placed in private prisons for the first time.

A system of private prisons sprung up during the administration of former Gov. Frank Keating, but they were mostly designed to house medium security inmates.

The move to private prisons was seen as an economic development issue, bringing jobs to depressed areas of Oklahoma, including some areas that had previously balked at having prisons in their communities.

At the time, some lawmakers raised public safety concerns about bringing maximum security inmates, including murderers, rapists and armed robbers, into Oklahoma from other states.

A bill that has passed the Senate and is pending on the House calendar would allow private prisons to contract with the state for maximum security inmates, but they would have to be transferred from Oklahoma prisons.

Veteran Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said private medium security prisons were ``built like crazy'' under Keating in the 1990s and that has led to problems in managing the state's prison population.

Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, introduced the bill to allow maximum security inmates to be placed in private control.

``It would only be in-state inmates,'' Corn said. ``We are not going to allow other states to bring their maximum security inmates into Oklahoma.''

Corn said Department of Corrections officials are having a difficult time managing its maximum security prisons and have asked for money to provide more than 700 new beds at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

``I would like to do that, but I don't know if the House will agree to such a plan,'' he said.

He said with maximum security prisons near or at capacity, his bill to use private prisons would give DOC officials flexibility to deal with overcrowding.

Corn said he would prefer that the state buy and build its own prisons instead of having to lease private prison space.

He said he believed it was better policy from both ``a public safety standpoint and a financial standpoint.''

It's just like a young couple deciding whether to buy or rent a house, Corn said. ``Why rent a house when you can own one and get a better return?''

Hobson said Keating did not like public prisons because they represented more government.

But what has developed, he said, is that private prisons now have a majority of medium security beds and that puts DOC officials in ``a terrible bind'' when they negotiate per diem for housing prisoners.

Since the state does not have prisons for all of the medium security inmates, private prisons have an advantage in negotiations, Hobson said.

``You should never have more than 22 or 23 percent of your inmate population in private prisons,'' he said. ``That tilts everything to private-for-profit entities.

``They are all fine people, but their goal is to make money and that is very different from the public sector goal.''

Hobson said the state's top goal should be public safety, but ``it shouldn't be our goal to maximize and fill up every bed every day.''

He said such things as rehabilitation, education and turning inmates into better citizens should be part of the equation of a good prison system.

Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said the bill to allow maximum security inmates in private prisons was sent to the House floor without controversy. Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, is House author.

Blackwell and Corn said the measure will require private prisons to satisfy certain security criteria before they can accept maximum security inmates.

Jerry Massie, spokesman for the DOC, said the agency did not request the legislation, ``but we are supportive of it the way it has been modified.''

Massie said a lack of space in maximum security prisons is causing the agency problems. ``You usually have to move someone out of maximum security to make room for a new maximum security inmate.

``When you are talking about moving large numbers, 30 or 40 that you want to move at one time, then it gets to be a real management issue, trying to decide which inmates you want to move out,'' he said.

He said most inmates in Oklahoma are double-celled, but many must be placed in a single cell because they are mentally ill or have other problems that exclude them from being placed with another inmate.

Much of last year and early this year Democrats and Republicans fought over emergency funding for prisons that would promoting the hiring of extra correctional officers.

Democrats wanted to do it at a special session last summer, but House Republicans wanted to wait until the regular session that began on Feb. 6. A compromise plan giving officers $2,800 raises was approved on March 1.

Sen. John Trebilcock, R-Tulsa, said a House position has not been established on new maximum security bids at the OSP in McAlester.

``It's something that is on the table as budget negotiations continue,'' said Trebilcock, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles public safety funding.

He said he and Corn, his Senate counterpart, are awaiting budget allocations later in the session ``before we can make those decisions.''
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