Crowding May Force Agency To Stop Accepting Inmates

Saturday, April 28th 2007, 2:08 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Department of Corrections will have to stop accepting new inmates within the next 14 days because the agency is running out of bed space in its prisons, officials said.

``I'm not aware that it's ever been done before,'' Corrections Director Justin Jones told the Board of Corrections, which oversees the Corrections Department, on Friday. ``I certainly don't see any other options.''

As of Friday, the state's prison population was at 98.1% capacity, above the 97% maximum that is allowed by the agency. Some beds must remain vacant for inmates who have to be isolated or are temporarily away from prison for court appearances, officials said.

Officials have overhauled several prisons to give them extra emergency capacity by putting beds in ``nontraditional areas,'' or rooms such as recreation areas not designed to hold inmates, Jones said.

That still won't be enough to keep up with the number of inmates being admitted to state prisons, he said.

The department also acquired another building at the William S. Key Correctional Facility, adding about 200 to the prison's capacity, but all those spaces are already full, Jones said.

Corrections officials plan to ask the state Pardon and Parole Board next month to commute the sentences of several hundred inmates to free up prison space.

About 130 inmates face deportation after their release and prison officials would transfer them to immigration officers if their sentences are cut short, Jones said. The agency also identified about 200 other inmates who were convicted of nonviolent offenses whose sentences could be commuted without posing a threat to society, he said.

State prisons had to absorb 800 inmates who were once housed at a private prison at Hinton that closed.

The agency also had to take in 300 inmates who were being held at the Oklahoma County Jail after a judge ruled that the jail essentially had been commandeered as a state prison. The agency was told it had to move the inmates if they had been sitting in the jail more than 45 days after being sentenced to prison time.

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association expressed concern about the department's situation and called on the Legislature to provide funding for more prison guards.

``Since the private prison corporation kicked Oklahoma inmates out of the prison at Hinton, state-operated prisons have been pushed to capacity,'' OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley said. ``Their demands have forced the state facilities to put inmates in any space the fire marshal will allow, creating great safety concerns.''

Board officials got some good news during the meeting.

The agency's chief financial officer said the agency will be able to pay its debts during the current fiscal year because of two supplemental appropriations approved by the Legislature, totaling about $32 million.