OKLAHOMA CITY — A top Republican leader says the Legislature must tackle the state’s burgeoning prison population or risk losing control of its corrections system to the federal government.
“Everybody, regardless of party, ought to be very interested in getting this fixed,” said House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, during an interview on Wednesday.
Hickman said the swelling prison population puts the state on a “collision course” that will affect all spheres of government, possibly leading to cuts in areas such as education and transportation.
If the state loses control of its prisons, as it did in the 1970s, lawmakers would face a funding mandate rather than have the latitude to set priorities and come up with solutions, he said.
Hickman made the comments as the state’s prison population soared to nearly 110 percent capacity, raising concerns about the safety of correctional officers and inmates, and increasing worries of problems like rioting inside prison walls.
Corrections officials say they now have nearly 2,000 more inmates than beds and are relying on makeshift facilities, like cramming beds into prison gymnasiums, as legislators decide what to do.
“You cannot put up a sign that says, 'No vacancy,'” said Corrections Department spokeswoman Terri Watkins. “There’s nothing we can do. We have to take them. We are looking for beds. We are trying to determine what exactly we can do to get more beds. We don’t have the money to pay for county jail beds.”
More than 50,000 inmates are under the Corrections Department's supervision, including more than 28,300 incarcerated in state prisons that can house 26,457. The remaining are on probation or parole.
“Whether it’s county jails, private prison beds, halfway houses, tracking bracelets — I think everything needs to be on the table because we’re literally in a crisis in corrections in Oklahoma," said Hickman.
In the past, state prisons typically have operated around 97 percent capacity. It’s only with the state’s recent decision to move inmates from county jails into prisons to save nearly $30 million a year that officials learned they had thousands of uncounted inmates.
The prison overcrowding isn’t expected to be resolved soon. The number of people sentenced to prison keeps growing, in part because of the state's tough sentencing laws.
“We’re not a wealthy enough state to lock everybody we’re mad at, and still have the money to lock up the people we’re afraid of,” Hickman said. “And that’s what we’re down to now. We’re having to decide how we’re going to operate this because we’re running out of beds to put people that we’re afraid of."
Hickman stopped short of urging sentencing reforms, though.
“We’re locking more and more people in Oklahoma, but we’re not seeing results in our crime rate,” he said. “Oklahoma streets aren’t safer because we’ve locked up more people. So there’s a disconnect there.”
The prison crisis is being fanned by budget worries. Next year's state budget is expected to be flat, with declining oil fortunes, which means lawmakers may have to take money from other areas to tackle the prison issue, Hickman said.
The Corrections Department says it needs an additional $84.5 million this coming year — half of which will pay for more beds and staff to handle the overcrowding. Corrections officials propose using about $19.4 million of that money to add 1,000 new beds in private prisons.
The Department of Corrections last fell under federal control in the late '70s when a federal judge hearing a class action found conditions at Oklahoma State Penitentiary unconstitutional and ordered federal oversight, which lasted for decades.
Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, who is expected to be named chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said legislators for years have been “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to tackling the prison system. He added that corrections officials have been asked to suggest alternatives that cost less.
“I’ll just be bold and tell you, there’s no way we can come up with $84.5 million for corrections," he said, "but we know we’re going to have to do something to help in this situation and this crowding.”