OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Department of Corrections has withdrawn its long-standing demand for $1 billion to improve prisons.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said when he took office last year, he was told the immediate injection of $1 billion was critical.
But things have changed now that the state’s incarceration rates have dropped to their lowest levels since 2009, he said. As of Monday, state records showed there were more than 25,000 incarcerated inmates.
“This is reducing the strain on our prison facilities and giving us the opportunity to reimagine the future of housing inmates,” Stitt said as he highlighted the move during his annual State of the State address.
His staff said Tuesday it’s not going to take $1 billion to create a safe housing system that is focused on outcomes and helping transition inmates into productive citizens.
Stitt said the most recent budget request “addresses the critical needs of tomorrow.”
Prison officials, though, had previously called for the funding, saying the safety of inmates and guards remained at risk without it. And, they said the state’s corrections infrastructure would continue to crumble, jeopardizing public safety.
The bulk of that $1 billion would have paid for two new prisons.
DOC officials said Tuesday they have established parameters for the next budget cycle that fall within Stitt’s cost containment initiatives that encourage fiscal responsibility.
“We are working with the governor’s office to find efficiencies inside prisons, fairly compensate staff and reduce contraband,” the agency said in a statement.
Officials said while it is difficult to predict future inmate counts, the agency is taking the opportunity to explore many options for future needs.
State Sen. Casey Murdock, whose district covers much of Northwest Oklahoma, has taken up the cause of William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply.
He said in January he learned the prison is on a list for possible closure. Key is a minimum-security facility opened in 1988 on the site of a former mental hospital.
“The lack of investment that rural Oklahoma gets from the power brokers in Oklahoma City — this is the line in the sand for me,” he said at a town hall meeting in January in Fort Supply.
State Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, also attended the meeting.
“We contribute hugely to the economy in the state of Oklahoma,” Newton said. “We need to keep everything we can back here, because it’s important to each one of our lives and our children, we’d like to keep them around here too.”
The Fort Supply prison employs 150 and generates a payroll of more than $7 million.
Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said he suspects prison officials withdrew the request because they were told they weren’t going to get it. His group represents correctional employees.
“They do need money for new infrastructure,” he said.
Cleveland said some of the prisons are more than century old and suffer from considerable wear and tear. Some prisons unquestionably need to be replaced — even if the inmate population continues to shrink, he said.
“It’s not very popular wanting to build a prison,” he said. “It’s never going to be popular, but it’s something that’s going to have to happen sooner or later. Some of our facilities are just antiquated.”
But, he said the agency has effectively been using more than $100 million in bond money to tackle existing problems with prison infrastructure. He said prison cell doors now lock and roofs no longer leak.
Officials noted last year that prisons had suffered from years of deferred maintenance or none at all. The extensive list of repairs was expected to include upgrades to electrical, heat and air and plumbing as well as water tower replacements.