Staff and wire reports
Enid News and Eagle
Oklahoma’s legislators have yet to respond to an urgent request from the Corrections Department for additional funding, leaving the agency worried the day may come when it cannot accept any more inmates.
Director Justin Jones of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections told a Senate committee in January that without an immediate $6 million boost to a $463 million budget, his department would no longer house inmates transferred in from county jails, some of which are at or above their own housing capacity. The future of that request amid a Republican legislature skittish of budget growth is murky at best, and no one seems to know what will happen to crowded state and county lockups if inmates keep coming and the money doesn’t follow.
“That’s a good question,” DOC public information officer Jerry Massie said. He said he could only guess county jails would have to fill up even more.
Since January, when Jones requested the immediate bump in funding, the situation only has gotten worse, Massie said. He said out of about 26,000 state inmates, roughly 1,800 currently sit in county jails awaiting transfer to state facilities that have nowhere to put them. Almost 1,000 inmates were added to the system within the past year.
The additional money would be used to contract for more prison and halfway-house space, Massie said.
The Oklahoma County Jail is home to about 325 of those backlogged inmates, County Sheriff John Whetsel said, and once housed less than half that. The jail now is full at 2,400 total inmates, he said.
“We cannot continue to increase that number,” Whetsel said. “There will have to be something done. The Legislature has got to provide funding.”
The state pays county jails $27 per day to house its inmates, but the state also must take inmates from county jails within 72 hours if those local jails make that request. Whetsel said he could soon have to make that request, and he didn’t know what would happen if the state said it simply couldn’t take any more.
“I think you’ll see some judges order the Department of Corrections to take the inmates,” he said. “Then that’s the state’s problem.”
Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles said his jail averages between 70 and 90 inmates awaiting transfer to DOC custody, but his department relies on funds from DOC for housing inmates.
“We’re at capacity, but we’ve been at capacity since six months after we opened,” he said. We also use some of that money they are paying us for payroll and operations funds. It’s built in as an expectation.”
He said the county jail is closer to having about 70 inmates ready for transfer, and has transferred 15-18 over the last six weeks.
He said the only problem he sees is if DOC does not pay the $27 per day for keeping inmates.
“If the Department of Corrections runs out of money and doesn’t pay us, we will be hurting,” Niles said. “We’re asking for a bill this year to increase the per-day costs from $27 to $30 a day. If the state pays that, it is still cheaper than halfway houses, private prisons, medium-security prisons and community treatment centers.”
He said justice also must be taken into account.
“We want to take criminals off the streets,” Niles said. “If they’re convicted persons, we want to make sure they get the full sentence they were given by juries of their peers, or through plea bargains.”
However, not all county jails are struggling for space. Pottawatomie County jail director Sid Stell said the state has been taking fewer of its inmates each month from his jail, but he still could hold about 70 more.
“Where they’re failing is not reaching out to the county jails to hold their overflow,” Stell said, referring to the DOC. “I’ve tried to get a DOC contract here in Pottawatomie County for four years.”
Some county jails, including Oklahoma County, already contract with the state to hold a certain number of state inmates. Massie said other county jails were as secure as state facilities but couldn’t offer the same substance-abuse treatment, vocational training or medical care.
Besides, he added, even if the DOC wants to contract with those jails, the department still needs the money.
Appearing before Senate budget-makers in January, Jones said he needed $3.8 million in supplemental funding to help pay for the extra inmates in the system, plus another $2 million to restore cuts in reimbursements for private prisons and $583,000 to pay for new treatment programs ordered by the Legislature last year.
In her State of the State address Feb. 4, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin didn’t propose any supplemental funding for the department and proposed legislators raise its budget for next fiscal year by only $1 million — compared to a request from Jones for an increase of more than $60 million.
Senate Republican leader Brian Bingman offered few clues on how much the department would end up getting.
“I’m aware of some needs in corrections,” he said last week. “I can’t talk specifics until we sit down with the appropriations chairmen working in the House and Senate to come up with a proposed budget.”