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Prison Overcrowding Dilemma Looms For State

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma, like other states across the country, is fast running out of prison space, leading to dire warnings that inmate overcrowding could put the state under another federal court order.

``We're going to have to close our doors. We're a week away from doing that,'' says Robert Rainey, chairman of the Board of Corrections, pointing out that state prisons are at 98 percent of capacity.

County officials are bracing for a backup of state prisoners who can't be housed by the state and worry they could face fines for violating jail standards.

So far, however, key lawmakers are opposing prison construction plans as the Oklahoma Legislature heads toward a May 25 adjournment deadline.

Prison funding discussions are centering on appropriating enough money to tide prisons over until lawmakers reconvene next February. Earlier this year, lawmakers made two emergency appropriations totaling $34 million to allow prisons to operate for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Gov. Brad Henry included a plan to expand the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester in a list of possible bond programs when he presented his budget to the Legislature in February.

The Department of Corrections wants to add 1,500 beds at the OSP and build a new, 2,400-bed medium security prison.

Officials say building new state prison space, however, is not being pushed in legislative budget discussions, which have focused on funding for such issues as education, including Henry's efforts to have lawmakers up the ante on proposed teacher pay raises.

``They'd much rather fund education; they'd much rather fund roads, and I understand why,'' Rainey said. ``The problem is the hens are going to come home to roost some day and it's not going to be pretty.''

He said politicians get elected on ``get-tough-on-crime'' platforms and not for campaigning to keep people out of prison by sending them to drug treatment, community corrections programs or other alternatives.

``But if you want to lock them up and throw away the key, you're going to have to pay for it,'' said Rainey, an eight-year board member appointed by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating.

The prison population has hovered around 25,000 for days and projections by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center are that it will reach 26,316 in the next fiscal year.

It is forecast to soar to 32,633 by the end of 2009 because of what Rainey called ``a perfect storm'' created by long minimum sentences, more felony laws and other factor such as the governor being required to sign off on paroles.

In the 2006 governor's race, Henry drew criticism from his Republican opponent for signing too many paroles for drug offenders. Recently, the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission heard statistics showing the number of paroles or commutations has dropped from 2,868 in 2001, a year before Henry was elected, to 846 in 2006.

Paul Sund, gubernatorial spokesman, said Henry ``bases his parole decisions on public safety, not prison population projections'' and will not use the parole system as ``a prison overcrowding relief valve.''

Repeated legislative efforts to take the governor out of the parole process have failed over the years. In most states, parole decisions are made by independent boards.

Senate co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, is among those opposing prison expansion. ``I don't think that is a cost-effective solution,'' he said.

Sen. Robert Lerblance, D-McAlester, supports a bond issue to build more prison space.

With $800 million in tax cuts scheduled to take effect in the next few years, ``we're going to have to go to a bond issue'' to pay for prison space or risk serious consequences, he says.

``It would be a much more inefficient use of taxpayer money'' if an inmates files a class-action lawsuit and state prisons wind up under federal court supervision, Lerblance said.

That happened in the 1970s after the most destructive riot in U.S. penal history left three inmates dead and more than $20 million in prison property in flames.

Four new prisons were built in the years after the riot. No full-fledged prisons have been built since then, Rainey said.

Coffee sees increased use of private prisons as part of the answer and says he would support increasing the amount of money the state pays to house its inmates.

Rainey said private prisons serve a purpose but Oklahoma already has too many private beds for what is ``an inherent state-based function.''

Oklahoma has made some strides in the areas of alternative sentencing and has a growing number of drug courts that save some offenders from incarceration.

But other legislative actions have added to the prison population, such as imposing 85 percent minimum sentences and passing more felonies each year, Lerblance said.

He said scores of bills were introduced this year to increase penalties for existing crimes or impose new felonies.

Jerry Massie, DOC spokesman, said the process of accepting new inmates from county jails had been slowed to match the number of inmates leaving the system.

``Until the numbers level out, it is going to get worse and it will be worse for the counties,'' he said.

Ken McNair, executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, said some county jails already are overcrowded.

If officials cannot send inmates to state custody it could cause them to be in violation of minimum jail standards under state law, McNair said.

``The sheriff is in a situation where he is required to hold these prisoners and he can't transfer them on his own authority. He's in kind of a Catch 22.''

Don Garrison, supervisor of jail inspections at the health agency, said fines for overcrowded conditions could mount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.

``They are going to be caught in a bind, that's for sure,'' Garrison said of county jails. ``We are going to work with them as much as possible, but the bottom line is we can't just look the other way.''
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