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Oklahoma prison officials seek increase in funding

Sean Murphy, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Oklahoma's overcrowded prison system needs $6.3 million before the next fiscal year or it will start refusing to accept inmates from county jails and face a legal showdown, the head of the state's prison system warned lawmakers Thursday.

Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones says he needs nearly $3.8 million to pay for the net growth of about 900 new prisoners in the system since last year. He also is requesting $2 million to restore cuts to private prison reimbursement rates and $583,000 to pay for new treatment requirements approved by lawmakers last year.

Oklahoma's prison system is at 99 percent capacity, and 1,700 more inmates have been sentenced to prison and are awaiting transfer from county jails, Jones told a Senate budget committee. Jones said the department already has converted every available building at state prisons into bed space and urged lawmakers to consider allowing him to contract with one of two vacant private prison facilities in Watonga and Hinton, which once housed inmates from other states.

"We have no more buildings. We have nowhere to put these inmates unless we start triple celling and putting inmates into hallways," Jones said. "Then the blood is on my hands."

Sen. Rob Johnson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary, said state leaders already have discussed DOC's need for a supplemental appropriation this year, and Jones said he's optimistic the funding will be approved after the Legislature convenes next month.

Jones told the panel that rather than putting three inmates in a cell, which he said would likely lead to a lawsuit and possible federal intervention into the state's prison system, he would be forced to begin refusing inmates being transferred from county jails. Jones said he would be willing to challenge a state law that requires him to accept inmates from county jails within 72 hours if a sheriff can show his local jail is overcrowded.

"I'm not going to triple cell," Jones said.

Oklahoma's prison population has exploded over the past few decades as lawmakers continue to enact harsher punishments and create new felony crimes that require prison time. Oklahoma has led the nation in incarceration rates for women for the last decade and consistently ranks among the top five in overall incarceration rate, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

While Oklahoma's population grew about 22 percent from 1980 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data, Jones said the state's prison population has grown 590 percent over the same time.

Jones also is seeking a $66.7 million boost in the department's annual operating budget, which includes $12.2 million in pay increases for correctional officers. Jones said additional funding would allow the state to boost its starting pay for prison guards from its current rate of $11.83 per hour to $14 per hour.

"Our current salaries are no longer competitive," Jones said.

Jones said the problem is particularly noticeable in western Oklahoma, where workers with no experience can take jobs in the oil industry for $15 per hour.

"If you've got any experience, you can make $20 to $22 an hour," Jones said.

Chard Reid, a 13-year veteran correctional officer who works at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, said he's regularly losing coworkers to jobs in the oil field or law enforcement.

"We're even losing guys that have 10 or 12 years of experience under their belt," Reid said. "Over the last seven years, we've had no pay raises. And insurance keeps going up, which means we're losing money every year."

Reid said he has turned down promotions to lieutenant because he doesn't want to lose the opportunity to earn overtime.

"If I go up to the next pay grade, I'll lose all that overtime," he said. "There's really no incentive to become a lieutenant."


Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy