The recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma tested the ability of the state's prison system to respond to disasters.

Sunday, May 18th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A tornado that hopscotched cross Oklahoma City on May 9 hit the Clara Waters Community Corrections Center, doing $5.5 million in damage and rendering the prison uninhabitable, officials said.

But drills and procedures drawn up for natural disasters helped ensure inmates and staff members were quickly moved to safety, said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

``There's some incidents you can't prepare for,'' Massie said. ``But for the most part ... you do drills and make sure you have things you need and who you will have to contact.''

A Corrections Emergency Response Team trained to quell riots or move inmates who need to be evacuated helped move the 216 inmates in vans to a recently vacated women's prison farther to the south. None of the prisoners escaped.

Clara Waters is a community corrections site with low-risk offenders, many of whom are close to being released. Had the storms threatened higher-security facilities, things might be different, Massie said.

``You'd have to move them inside the perimeters of medium-security units,'' he said.

Inmates living in a damaged housing unit could temporarily be housed in common areas such as a gymnasium or an outdoor setting within a prison's grounds.

Displaced inmates could be sent to other higher-security prisons eventually, but many of those facilities already are near capacity, Massie said. That could mean sending some to private prisons.

Oklahoma's private prisons have emergency plans similar to state prisons.

The medium-security Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville recently conducted a drill in which law enforcement, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, paramedics and local civil defense personnel participated, said Susan Tilley, prison spokeswoman.

The prison would have to rely on the state for help if major damage from a storm occurred and prisoners had to be moved to some other facility, Tilley said.

Many county jails provide good protection from tornadoes, but if one were destroyed, moving prisoners would be harder.

The single-story Murray County jail has brick outer walls and steel-reinforced concrete inner walls. The roof is also steel-reinforced concrete.

``You're basically talking about a safe room,'' Sheriff Marvin McCracken said. ``Unless it's one of those real bad ones, over 200 mph, they (prisoners) will basically stay where they're at.''

If necessary, prisoners would be moved to cells the greatest distance from the storm and be provided mattresses to hide under, McCracken said.

If damage occurs, prisoners would be dispersed to a three-cell lockup in Davis and to jails in other counties.