Oklahoma prison officials show photographs of crumbling infrastructure, ask Legislature for $1.53 billion

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A broomstick plugs a leaky water tank at Mack Alford Correctional Center in Atoka County. Courtesy DOC

Oklahoma corrections and mental health officials warn the state’s prison population will grow by 25 percent over the next 10 years without reforms and additional funding.  

At 112 percent capacity, the state’s prison are already dangerously overcrowded and understaffed, Joe Allbaugh director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections told legislators Tuesday during a budget hearing.

The Department of Corrections is asking for more than $1.53 billion in state funding next fiscal year. The budget request includes pay increases for correctional officers who haven’t seen a raise in more than a decade, repairs for aging infrastructure and $813 million to build two new prisons.  

Starting pay for correctional security officers in Oklahoma is $12.78 an hour, nearly a dollar less than what clerks at 7-Eleven make, according to the agency’s budget presentation.

“The sky is falling and you’ve heard me say that before, but it’s actually gotten worse,” Allbaugh said.

A bathroom in disrepair at Mack Alford Correctional Center in Atoka County is shown. Courtesy DOC

Allbaugh showed state lawmakers at the hearing photographs of leaky prison roofs and bathrooms with peeling paint and open shower stalls—a violation of federal anti-prison rape laws. Two photographs showed a leaking water tower at Mack Alford Correctional Center in Atoka County that has been plugged with an old broom handle and a toothbrush.

“If either of those things were missing, we wouldn’t have water at Mack Alford,” Allbaugh said.

Oklahoma is sentencing more offenders to longer prison terms and fewer inmates are being released on parole, which has exacerbated prison overcrowding, Allbaugh said.

Terri White, commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, told state lawmakers that it’s been a decade since the Legislature expanded the number of available placements in drug court programs in the state.

Drug courts have proven as a cost-effective way to keep people out of prison and treat addiction, White said.

While drug court costs the state an estimated $5,000 per person a year, it costs a minimum $19,000 a year to house a prison inmate.

Mental health court programs, which divert nonviolent offenders with mental illness, are only available in 14 of the state’s 77 counties.

ODMHSAS Commissioner Terri White speaks to legislators at the Oklahoma Capitol on Tuesday. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

“Every single week there are people sentenced to prisons because mental health court is not an option in their county,” White said.

ODMHSAS is asking the Oklahoma Legislature for $96.6 million next fiscal year to restore cuts to services and to implement a number of new programs to keep more offenders out of prison and into treatment programs.

The programs include mental health and substance abuse screenings at county jails, treatment options for people on probation and parole who are at-risk of being put back into prison and expanding drug and mental health court programs.

Neither agency is likely to have its full funding request granted by the Legislature. The state has still not found a way to plug a $215 million budget gap for the current year and is looking at a projected $600 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year.

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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