Lawmakers tour women's prison

Wednesday, October 8th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McLOUD, Okla. (AP) _ The women relaxed on sofas and huddled around television sets in housing units decorated with colorful Halloween streamers and stencils of black cats and scary witches.

Some marked time by crocheting or assembling jigsaw puzzles. Others read or listened to music through the headphones of a portable radio. All counted the days before they complete their sentence and build a new life beyond tall chain-link fences and razor wire.

They're the women of the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud, 1,051 state inmates who are guarded and cared for by fewer than 110 correctional officers, nurses and teachers.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers who want to know why Oklahoma incarcerates more of its women than any other state traveled to the Pottawatomie County town to see the inmates and their keepers firsthand.

``I really think we need to change the direction that we're going in Oklahoma. We're locking up too many people,'' said House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell.

Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of women behind bars, an incarceration rate that is 143 percent higher than the national average.

The state's incarceration rate comes at a high price, one that the state cannot afford, said Gary Jones, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

While the state's incarceration rate remains high, it ranks 30th in the nation in per capita spending on corrections, according to the OPEA.

The Department of Corrections asked the Legislature this year to appropriate $395 million to maintain basic operations at the agency. The request was based on leaving 20 percent of its correctional positions vacant and deferring equipment and maintenance needs.

Lawmakers appropriated only $373.9 million, leaving a $21 million budget hole. It costs an average of $42 a day to house, feed and care for an inmate, Corrections Director Ron Ward said.

The agency's budget crisis has left a staffing shortage at Mabel Bassett and other state prisons that has put the safety of state prison workers, inmates and even communities at risk, the OPEA said.

On Tuesday, 17 correctional guards were on duty at Mabel Bassett, a facility with a minimum staffing requirement of 18 guards per shift. Officials said they put prison counselors in uniform to meet the staffing guidelines.

``When you have a 20 percent vacancy rate, it's going to have a definite impact on safety,'' Jones said.

Jones has asked Gov. Brad Henry to call a special session of the Legislature to appropriate federal emergency funds for state prisons.

Jones has also urged lawmakers to find alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, especially those in prison for drug and alcohol offenses.

``With our current budget and staffing crisis, we must look at alternatives for nonviolent offenders,'' Jones said.

At Mabel Bassett, 79 percent of inmates were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and nearly half are in prison for drug and alcohol offenses, officials said.

``Women offenders have different treatment needs than men offenders,'' said Rep. Jari Askins, D-Duncan. ``Women offenders do really well on a long-term basis in halfway houses.''