Corrections Department says emergency funding bill not enough

Saturday, March 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) _ A $7 million emergency funding bill sent to Gov. Frank Keating will only allow the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to operate through May 1, state Board of Corrections members were told.

The emergency funding bill's request is far short of what will be needed to operate through the fiscal year that ends June 30, David Miller, chief of administrative operations for the Corrections Department, told the board on Friday. Miller said $324,000 a day is needed to house state inmates.

The Oklahoma House initially recommended $13.7 million in extra money for corrections, but the final version of the bill cut that amount nearly in half. The department wants $35 million.

Some board members have criticized the Legislature for acting slowly on request for supplemental funding. Last week, a state senator warned that board members were making dangerous and inflammatory statements about prison needs in an effort to force legislative action.

Members' comments were more restrained during Friday's meeting at the Muskogee probation and parole office.

Board members did not talk about a contingency plan on Friday, but in the past they have discussed putting three and four inmates into cells designed for no more than two. They also have considered creating tent cities for inmates now housed under contracts with private prisons, county jails and halfway houses.

Board member David Henneke said lawmakers' actions force staff to waste time and resources that would be better used on the job.

``This is the second year we have had to deal with this problem,' Henneke said. ``It upsets me to no end that we have to baby-sit the Legislature through this process.''

Board member Michael Roark sought to clarify the department's role in working with the Pardon and Parole Board to accelerate releases and clear a backlog of scheduled paroles.

``We don't want to engage in finger pointing, but we are doing what we are supposed to be doing,'' Roark said.

Patty Davis, chief of programs, said the department sent one of its personnel to the pardon and parole office to help move paperwork. She said the department can do no more to accelerate the process.

``We have sent hundreds of files to the Parole Board in recent days,'' she said. ``Two hundred files went to the governor's office this week, and there will be 400 more next week. We are moving the files as fast as we can.''

More than 2,000 inmates recommended for parole remain in prisons at a cost of $43 per day.

Lawmakers told the Parole Board to develop a plan to reduce the backlog. Corrections Director James Saffle said he suggested ways to streamline the process.

He said some of the education stipulations placed on inmates to meet parole conditions need modification, and some of the programs could be completed once the inmate is released.

Chairman Randy Wright told the board that the releases were from minimum security systems, and parole numbers do not affect maximum and medium security lockups. He also said that granted paroles did not necessarily reflect the number to be released from the prison population. Some inmates are serving consecutive sentences.

According to figures from the Corrections Department, there are about 6,200 inmates in private prisons, 950 in halfway houses and 350 contracted to county jails.

Roark said lawmakers would be wrong to parole inmates just for the sake of cash flow and to expect the Corrections Department to weaken a classification system that has reduced inmate offenses.