OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - After just a few months on the job, the new director of Oklahoma's prison system is pushing more inmates into vacant beds at work centers and halfway houses and has nearly tripled the intake rate of prisoners into state facilities.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton is looking for ways to tighten the $464 million annual budget for state prisons, and he believes clearing the backlog of more than 1,700 offenders in county jails across the state will help. But not all sheriffs and jail administrators are happy to see the inmates go. Many count on the $27 daily rate to house DOC inmates to keep their jail operations running.
Beginning last week, the department went from receiving 35 offenders each day to 100 each day, and has reduced the county jail backlog by nearly 500 inmates, according to figures provided by DOC.
"We're looking hopefully by sometime in May to get all 1,700 out of the county jails. That's the goal," said Patton, a 30-year veteran of the prison industry hired in January from the Arizona Department of Corrections.
For some counties, clearing out jail inmates who already have been sentenced by a judge to serve prison time helps ease overcrowding or free up bed space for more lucrative federal or municipal contracts. But most Oklahoma counties will lose a consistent revenue stream that is typically used to offset the cost of jail operations, said Ray McNair, director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association.
"The majority need those inmates," McNair said. "When you pull every one of them they've got, you're going to have an impact on the operation of that jail. The only thing the sheriff can do is go back to the county commissioners and ask for more money."
At the Payne County Jail in Stillwater, about 40 of the 210 inmates are awaiting transfer to DOC custody, which amounts to more than $1,000 each day that is used to fund the jail's food and medical costs.
"They've already given us the call and want to take 20 of the 40," said Payne County Sheriff's Capt. Kevin Woodward. "That would definitely impact our budget. Certainly we'd have to come up with a different funding source for the medical contract."
Because food and medical expenses are mandatory, Woodward said jail officials would have to cut other programs or shore up costs elsewhere.
"But for some of these small counties, this could be really devastating," Woodward said.
Patton, Oklahoma's new prison boss, sees the county jail backup as just one piece in the complicated puzzle of corrections reform in a state with more than 26,000 inmates and one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. He said one of his top goals is to make sure inmates are being appropriately classified and moved into lower-cost beds in some of the state's private halfway houses or 15 community work centers.
"Only those offenders that are in true need of maximum custody should be placed in maximum-custody beds," Patton said. "If we can manage them at a lower custody level, then we need to look at a lower custody level. I should have a list of 1,000 inmates waiting to get into halfway houses in this state. It shouldn't be the other way around, where I have 500 inmates waiting to get into maximum custody."
Patton also is facing a staffing crisis in many state prisons, where starting pay for a correctional officer is $11.83 per hour. Prison workers are routinely forced to work 60-hour work weeks at understaffed facilities with some of the worst officer-to-inmate staffing ratios in the nation.
Patton's visits to the 17 state prisons across the state and his apparent willingness to embrace new ideas are helping improve morale among staff, but there still is concern about how much additional work they can handle, said Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a group that represents prison workers.
"Some of our prisons, definitely at (Lexington Assessment and Reception Center), staff is being asked to do even more than what they're doing now," Wallace said. "In the short term, we're concerned about adding beds to common areas like dayrooms and gyms ... when we were already extremely short staffed.
"The Legislature and the public needs to know what we're having to do to make this budget. There's a serious safety concern in the short term."
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