The Oklahoma Department of Corrections uses three private prisons, run by two companies, to help ease overcrowding. There are contracts in place to ensure the facilities abide by state rules, but the state doesn’t always take options available to it when private facilities fail to live up to their obligations.
‘Very dangerous prison’
Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Okla., is miles away from any major highway. The road quickly turns from pavement to gravel once you reach the far side of the prison. Barbed wire fences surround the taupe buildings with red roofs, and a white water tower emblazoned with the city’s name marks the entrance to the facility.
“It's a very dangerous prison, it's had a lot of problems here,” state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, says as he stands across from the facility.
The lawmaker is on the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, and he says he spends lots of time touring prisons across the state.
“I'm in favor of private prisons,” Cleveland says. “I have no problem with private prisons. Without the private prisons in Oklahoma, we'd be in a heck of a shape.”
But he says they have to run well.
Cimarron Correctional Facility, owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, saw multiple breaches of contract in 2015, according to letters obtained by KGOU through an open records request.
“When you have this kind of a problem here at this particular prison and you have DOC people on staff here, it's even more troublesome,” Cleveland says.
The state’s Department of Corrections has two contract monitors at the Cushing prison. They work inside the facility and make sure the prison follows policies and procedures in the state’s contract.
If an issue isn’t resolved quickly or adequately, DOC spokesperson Terri Watkins says something called a letter to cure goes out. It formally tells the prison: “this needs to be fixed.”
“If they don't take the appropriate action in the appropriate amount of time, we can withhold funds from them,” Watkins says.
The state sent Cushing four of these letters in 2015.
Two letters came after the prison sent in late, inaccurate or incomplete reports following what the department calls “serious incidents.” Watkins describes those events as ones typically involving multiple inmates.
Another letter to cure reprimanded Cimarron Correctional Facility for failing to follow rules related to required cameras during serious incidents.
All three mentioned previous correspondence about the breaches of contract.
“The assigned contract monitor, since earlier occurrences of non-compliance has had several discussions with facility staff that (sic.) has oversight of security processes for purpose of correcting process of non-compliance, however with no success,” a Jan. 21, 2015, letter from the Department of Corrections noted.
There had been memos urging the prison to correct shortcomings, conversations between state employees and private prison staff, and notes of earlier occurrences of non-compliance.
This was not the first warning. Despite that, the state chose not to withhold money.
“It's not one of those things necessarily where you look at it go, ‘They ignored you,’” Watkins says.
“No, we may have had a disagreement over at what level you do this. I think the biggie is: that option is available to us. And if we choose to take it, we can choose to take it,” Watkins says.
The state agency has withheld money from private prisons before. In fiscal year 2016, the state assessed more than $120,000 in monetary damages when facilities released inmates on an incorrect date.
“And we’re talking a day or two early or late,” Watkins says.
The fines ranged from $2,500 - $112,500 across the three prisons.
Most letters to cure issued to the private facilities in recent years have included a disclaimer warning wardens the state “will consider withholding of payments for non-performance,” but since 2012, the only damages have been related to the errant releases.
The final letter sent to Cimarron Correctional Facility last year arrived in October, when DOC told the prison it was waiting on incident reports dating back to March.
The Cushing prison had already received a similar letter about its reporting process in January 2015, and the facility responded by promising to "meet all expectations."
According to the letters’ dates, the prison followed reporting procedures for incidents inside the prison for a maximum of two months before falling months behind.
When asked why it took the Department of Corrections more than six months to issue a letter to cure, Watkins paused for several seconds.
“In all likelihood, they either did not realize that the reports were not getting done in the proper amount of time, or they were working with the facility in order to try to get them to comply,” she said.
Watkins says prisons have to report “almost everything” and insists contract monitors aren’t missing major incidents.
The late reports could’ve been related to something as simple as forcefully removing an inmate from a cell, Watkins says, not necessarily violent events.
Corrections Corporation of America, the parent company of Cimarron Correctional Facility, declined repeated requests for an interview.
‘No room for mistakes’
Back at the Cushing prison, state Rep. Bobby Cleveland wonders why the state opted against levying fines. He’s concerned by what he calls “mismanagement” at the Department of Corrections.
“I think the responsibility is to DOC. They have to make sure that these private prisons are following the letter of the law. They've got to follow these policies to a ‘t.’ There's just no excuse, and there's no room for mistakes,” he says.
Cleveland and Terri Watkins agree there’s no room for mistakes. But Cleveland questions the abilities of the state’s contract monitors to keep things running smoothly and argues there might need to be more public eyes within private prison walls.
“The DOC needs to be monitoring it,” Cleveland adds. “And they need to be monitoring it a little closer than what they are.”