Oklahoma looks to private prisons as state facilities become overcrowded

Sunday, February 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma is relying on private prisons to house the growing number of people locked up each year, causing some legislators to take another look at the financial repercussions.

Twice as many Oklahoma prisoners were released on parole last year compared to 1999, but the state's inmate population continues to grow.

Taxpayers footed the $94 million bill for six medium-security private prisons that housed Oklahoma inmates during the last fiscal year. This year, the Corrections Department is asking legislators for $35 million to pay private prisons and inmate medical bills.

The department's request is expected to be a hot topic during this legislative session.

Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said the state's dependence on private prisons is underscoring fundamental problems in the prison system.

``It's one of our two or three most difficult issues this legislative session,'' he said.

Other critics claim the Corrections Department processes pending paroles too slowly, forcing inmates to remain locked up longer than necessary.

Gov. Frank Keating has pushed for private prisons in the past and is expected to talk about the issue during his State of the State speech Monday.

``Obviously, there's always room for discussion about ways to improve the whole corrections system, whether it's public or private,'' said John Cox, the governor's press secretary. ``But private prisons have proven nationwide to be a success, and the governor is certainly interested in continuing to utilize them.''

Oklahoma inmates are living in several private prisons, including the Central Oklahoma Correctional Facility in McLoud, the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton and the Lawton Correctional Facility.

The six prisons are housing more than 6,000 inmates, 27 percent of Oklahoma's total prison population of 22,400.

Five years ago, private prisons housed about 1,200 inmates.

Since 1995, the state's inmate population has climbed 35 percent. With the state's public prisons at capacity, the private prison population is up 5.4 percent, or more than 300 inmates, over last fiscal year.

Rep. Kenneth Corn, D-Howe, said Oklahomans would benefit in the long run by building a new 1,000-inmate medium-security prison. Officials predict the project would cost $44 million.

Corn said taxpayers would be better off repaying the debt to build the prison than to continue paying private prisons.

``We're locking Oklahomans into long-term contracts at an expensive rate, higher than we can do it ourselves,'' Corn said.