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Let Down And Locked Up: Why Oklahoma’s Female Incarceration Is So High

Sep 20, 2017
Robyn Allen, 52, is serving 20 years at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in central Oklahoma for trafficking of methamphetamine. This was her first felony offense.
Glassbreaker Films

Robyn Allen saw her daughter for the first time in two years from across the yard of Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison, the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center.

prison bars
Pixabay / (CC0 1.0)

Editor's note: The House gave final legislative approval to this bill on a 90-0 vote Monday, and it now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin's desk.

A bill moving through the Oklahoma Legislature could allow many non-violent misdemeanor offenders to avoid a lengthy stay in county jail.

But it comes with a catch: Inmates would have to volunteer their work for free.

The program could save the counties money, but some inmate advocates cite a risk that it could lead to exploitation of inmates with loose oversight at county levels.

The Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.
Ben Fenwick / Oklahoma Watch

Despite efforts to reduce incarceration, Oklahoma's prison population is growing at a defiantly steady pace.

The trend includes a surge of hundreds of state inmates being held in county jails and the rate of women in prison reaching its highest recorded level.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections data show that since late 2014, a year when early-release policies were relaxed to help reduce incarceration, the number of inmates in corrections facilities has increased by nearly 1,200, reaching 28,095 near the end of 2015. The total also rose throughout 2014.

The Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.
Ben Fenwick / Oklahoma Watch

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to place caps on how much inmates in jails and prisons can be charged for making phone calls.

The new caps will help inmates and their families, many of whom struggle with finances because of poverty or the loss of a breadwinner, and help them stay in touch with each other, said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who championed the rule.

“The system is inequitable. It has preyed upon our most vulnerable for far too long. Families are being further torn apart and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated,” Clyburn said.

President Obama tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on July 16, 2015
Kate Carlton Greer / KGOU

Federal inmates who met with President Barack Obama at an Oklahoma prison during the filming of a documentary in July are hopeful the show will influence policymakers.

About 50 inmates gathered at the El Reno federal prison Wednesday to watch the premiere of Fixing the System, a Vice on HBO special report.

The Obama administration Friday is taking a small step toward expanding adult prisoners' access to federal Pell grants. The money would help pay for college-level classes behind bars.

Wesley Fryer / Flickr

Governor Mary Fallin signed legislation Monday allowing judicial discretion for a number of nonviolent crimes.

House Bill 1518, known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, permits judges to lessen mandatory minimum sentences when the term is “not necessary for the protection of the public” and could “result in substantial injustice to the defendant.”  

The latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show Oklahoma has the highest rate of prison homicides in the nation, with state inmates killed at a rate more than three times the national average.

The figures reviewed by The Associated Press as part of a months-long investigation show 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons between 2001 and 2012, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates. The second highest rate is Maryland with 11 homicides per 100,000. The national average is 4 per 100,000.

Wesley Fryer / Flickr

Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton plans to meet this week or next with Pardon and Parole Interim Director Jari Askins to discuss the possible early release of certain nonviolent offenders due to prison overcrowding.

The Board of Corrections approved a recalculation of the prison system’s capacity Thursday, showing the state’s facilities are now at 116 percent of capacity.

Yumi Kimura / Flickr.com

Police in Tulsa say an escaped Oklahoma state prison inmate has been recaptured following a short chase.

Police told reporters that 24-year-old Christopher Rowe was arrested Wednesday night in north Tulsa after an officer spotted him driving a sport utility vehicle and that he led police on a short chase before being stopped and arrested.

prison bars
mikecogh / Flickr Creative Commons

An Oklahoma prison inmate who walked away from a minimum security facility on New Year's Eve was the fourth inmate to escape from the prison in less than a week.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie says 24-year-old Christopher Rowe remained on the loose Tuesday. Massie says officials believe he is in the Tulsa area. The other three inmates who walked away from the John H. Lilley Correctional Center on Dec. 27 were returned to the Okfuskee County facility within a day.

Oklahoma County

County jails are inadequate holding facilities for those with long-term criminal sentences, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said Wednesday during an interim study.

A report prepared by House staffer Joshua Maxey said the daily required payment by the DOC to the counties is $27 per day plus medical costs for each inmate. 

The total money paid by the DOC in fiscal year 2013, he said, was $26.3 million. The costs covered 1,700 inmates currently awaiting transfer to DOC facilities.

As of this month, there is a backlog of 240 inmates.

DOC Discussing Possible Nursing Home For Aging Prison Population

Oct 28, 2014
Tim (Timothy) Pearce / Flickr.com

The Department of Corrections has begun preliminary talks with a nursing home operator concerning the possibility of contracting with a facility to house aging state inmates, the Senate Public Safety Committee was told Tuesday.

Dr. William Cooper, the department’s chief medical officer, said the department was approached by a nursing home operations firm about the possibility of contracting with the department. The discussions are in the very early stages.

The death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Oklahoma prison officials have spent more than $106,000 renovating the death chamber inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

The Department of Corrections is allowing members of the media inside the prison's maximum-security H-unit on Thursday to see the new room.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Updated at 3:10 p.m.

A man police allege beheaded a woman at a Moore food distribution center late Thursday has a lengthy criminal record and a history of assault, according to court records.

At a press conference Friday morning, police spokesman Jeremy Lewis also said suspect Alton Nolen was in the process of being terminated. 

Most Oklahoma Prisons Are Over Capacity

Aug 16, 2014
Atoka County Times

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ effort to shift thousands of state prisoners out of county jails has resulted in nearly two-thirds of state prisons being over capacity.

The Corrections Department is placing many inmates in designated “temporary” beds in various common areas of prisons, such as a gymnasium or day room.

In a related move, the agency is proposing to revise how it determines the maximum capacity of its prisons, by using a higher “operational” capacity that includes temporary beds, on top of the current “rated design capacity” — the number of inmates a facility is designed to hold. Under operational capacity, the current reported percentages of occupancy at many prisons could drop from over to under 100 percent.

The recent inmate population growth is raising concerns from the head of the state correctional officers’ group, who says safety is being compromised because inmates are being added while correctional staffing levels remain inadequate.

“I think it’s absolutely putting them (officers) in a dangerous spot,” said Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Correctional Professionals. “I’ve heard it from staff before … but now I’m hearing it directly from officers – they’re afraid to go to work.”

According to the corrections department’s Aug. 4 count of inmates, 16 of the state’s 24 minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisons were at more than 100 percent capacity. The number slipped to 15 the following week. Five facilities had more than 100 inmates above their official capacity limits.

prison bars
mikecogh / Flickr Creative Commons

A group that represents Oklahoma correctional officers says state prisons could end up dangerously understaffed if proposed cost-saving measures take effect.

In a letter to Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals says it has "grave concerns" about plans to eliminate 12-hour shifts by reducing the number of officers required on security posts.

Alex Proimos / Flickr.com

While the vast majority of states in the U.S. have seen prison health care costs climb sharply in recent years, a new national study shows Oklahoma is one of the few states bucking that trend.

A report on state spending on prison health care released Tuesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows Oklahoma is among ten states where the per-inmate spending declined from 2007 to 2011. Oklahoma had the lowest per-inmate cost in the country in 2011 at $2,558, a decline of 17 percent from $3,071 per inmate in 207 spending.

prison bars
mikecogh / Flickr Creative Commons

The Oklahoma House has given final approval to a $13 million supplemental funding measure to help Oklahoma's prison system pay its bills for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The House voted 68-23 for the measure Tuesday and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin's desk to be signed into law. 

In a separate vote, House members voted 81-8 for an emergency clause that would permit the measure to go into effect as soon as it is signed. The Senate passed the measure last week.

prison bars
mikecogh / Flickr Creative Commons

Sheriffs from across the state are gathering at the state Capitol to voice concern about the increasing number of state prisoners who are being removed from county jails and processed into the state prison system.

Many of the sheriffs who packed the Senate gallery on Tuesday count on the $27 daily per-prisoner reimbursement from the state to help fund jail operations, like medical and food contracts.

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