Oklahoma Is Imprisoning So Many People It Can’t Hire Enough Guards To Keep Up

Michael Arria

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officers stand guard at San Quentin State Prison's death row adjustment center on Aug. 15, 2016 in San Quentin, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In July of this year, some 150 pris­on­ers at the Great Plains Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty in Tul­sa, Okla., riot­ed. The riot report­ed­ly devel­oped after a fight between pris­on­ers and last­ed for about eight hours. Two prison guards were tak­en hostage before the pris­on­ers were cor­ralled and returned to their cells.

The inci­dent imme­di­ate­ly led to calls for a guard increase. In Jan­u­ary, the Okla­homa Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions announced it had a short­age of cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers rel­a­tive to the state’s grow­ing prison pop­u­la­tion. Okla­homa has the sec­ond high­est per-capi­ta incar­cer­a­tion rate in the coun­try, and the high­est rates of incar­cer­a­tion for both women and black men.

Okla­homa isn’t an iso­lat­ed case. Despite recent push­es for prison reforms and sen­tence reduc­tions, the ranks of the incar­cer­at­ed are grow­ing in many states. Mean­while, there’s a wide­spread short­age of cor­rec­tions offi­cers par­tial­ly due to the profession’s cul­tur­al stig­ma as a job with less pres­tige than that of a fire­fight­er or police offi­cer. In 2014, 34 states sub­mit­ted four-year prison pro­jec­tions to The Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts. Twen­ty-eight expect­ed their prison pop­u­la­tions to grow between 1 and 16 per­cent by 2018.

Okla­homa had a record 63,009 peo­ple in its sys­tem as of August. Over the last eight-and-a-half months, the state has added 2,000 pris­on­ers—four times the growth pro­ject­ed by a governor’s task force in February.

There have been a num­ber of leg­isla­tive efforts to reform Oklahoma’s crim­i­nal jus­tice poli­cies and poten­tial­ly lessen its num­ber of pris­on­ers, but these efforts have often been thwart­ed by the state’s con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment. Jes­si­ca Brand, legal direc­tor of the Fair Pun­ish­ment Project, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that advo­cates for a fair and account­able jus­tice sys­tem, tells In These Times that the state’s aggres­sive dis­trict attor­neys also deserve a large chunk of the blame.

Crim­i­nal jus­tice reform is pos­si­ble in Okla­homa, but in the past these efforts have been met with strong resis­tance from elect­ed pros­e­cu­tors,” Brand says. The dis­trict attor­neys of the state’s three most pop­u­lous coun­ties – Okla­homa, Tul­sa, and Cleve­land – opposed a ref­er­en­dum to lessen sen­tences for drug pos­ses­sion offens­es in 2016, and [Okla­homa Coun­ty Dis­trict Attor­ney] David Prater remains a strong defend­er of civ­il asset for­fei­ture at a time when the prac­tice is receiv­ing bipar­ti­san condemnation.”

Calls for prison guard increas­es are, of course, calls for an expand­ed cor­rec­tions bud­get, and prison guard unions are usu­al­ly at the fore­front of these push­es. For instance, the Okla­homa Cor­rec­tions Pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tion is call­ing for more prison spend­ing. And even though the Tul­sa riot took place at a pri­vate prison, Okla­homa Cor­rec­tion­al Pro­fes­sion­als Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Jack­ie Switzer says it could hap­pen at any state-run facil­i­ty. Switzer also says many state prison guards don’t feel safe because there sim­ply are not enough officers.

Most of our state agen­cies see a rise in inci­dents,” he said to local media short­ly after the riot occurred. We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on them. We have to have the funds to fix the problems.”

While police unions have faced their share of crit­i­cism from pro­gres­sives, the role that cor­rec­tion­al offi­cer unions play in the expand­ing the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex is often over­looked in the recent scruti­ny of the jus­tice sys­tem sparked by the Move­ment for Black Lives.

Prison guard unions often have a strong incen­tive to push back against reforms, because so much of what we spend on incar­cer­a­tion goes to cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers,” says John Pfaff, a Ford­ham Law School pro­fes­sor and author of Locked In: The True Caus­es of Mass Incar­cer­a­tion — and How to Achieve Real Reform. This is why these unions have such a strong incen­tive keep cor­rec­tion­al spend­ing high, says Pfaff.

In the­o­ry, the unions would like­ly be fine with prison pop­u­la­tion cuts as long as they didn’t require prison clo­sures and lay­offs,” he says.

In Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the 1990s, the Cal­i­for­nia Cor­rec­tion­al Peace Offi­cers Asso­ci­a­tion (CCPOA) pushed for three-strikes leg­is­la­tion and fought attempts at parole reform. These actions helped dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase the union’s mem­ber­ship, which went from 5,000 in 1982 to 31,000 in 2011.

One sim­ple solu­tion to prison over­pop­u­la­tion is to release more peo­ple on parole. Although Oklahoma’s GOP gov­er­nor, Mary Fallin, has declared crim­i­nal jus­tice reforms to reduce incar­cer­a­tion as her top pri­or­i­ty, she’s fought efforts to reform the state’s parole sys­tem and inter­vened to block parole for hun­dreds of offend­ers.

This sum­mer a group of pris­on­ers sued Fallin, alleg­ing unsafe con­di­tions and unjust parole hear­ings. Okla­homa-based pris­on­er advo­ca­cy group All In One Project, whose mem­bers make up many of the plain­tiffs, says it has peti­tioned the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to intervene.

Okla­homa pris­ons are so dan­ger­ous and over­crowd­ed that any term of impris­on­ment is a poten­tial death sen­tence,” reads the com­plaint. The plain­tiffs mean this quite lit­er­al­ly: between 2001 and 2014 there were 13 killings per 100,000 pris­on­ers. For con­text, in that same peri­od there were 2 homi­cides per 100,000 pris­on­ers in New York and 5 homi­cides per 100,000 pris­on­ers in Louisiana, accord­ing to fig­ures from the U.S. Bureau of Jus­tice Statistics.

The law­suit also alleges that Okla­homa impris­ons a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of African-Amer­i­cans and poor peo­ple, as well as an unusu­al­ly high per­cent­age of women, while the state’s pris­ons remain some of the most dan­ger­ous in the country.

In 2015 more than $451 mil­lion was spent on Oklahoma’s pris­ons, accord­ing to an analy­sis by the Vera Insti­tute of Jus­tice. Accord­ing to a recent report by the Okla­homa Jus­tice Reform Task Force, if the prison pop­u­la­tion in Okla­homa con­tin­ues to rise, the state may have to spend anoth­er $1.9 bil­lion on the prison sys­tem over the next 10 years.

This price tag may be good news for only one group: prison guard unions.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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