Late last September, as Oklahoma’s prison population continued to swell and lawmakers bickered about reforms, Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announced at DOC’s monthly board meeting a major decision.
Soon, Allbaugh said, DOC would begin releasing certain nonviolent prisoners who were near the end of their sentence. The offenders would remain under supervision, but would not be housed in a state prison.
“We have to start somewhere,” Allbaugh told the board. Counting prisons and supervision programs, DOC had more than 63,000 inmates in its care and was about 10 percent over capacity.
Laura Pittman, DOC’s director of population, programs and strategic planning said about 1,400 inmates had “qualified” for supervised release, though she said many of them would be screened out. Allbaugh cautioned that inmate releases would be akin to a “slow trickle.”
More than half-a-year later, it’s safe to say the “slow trickle” statement was right. According to DOC records released to The Frontier following an Open Records Act request, only seven inmates have so far been released through the program.
Program met with pushback
Allbaugh’s program was right away met with pushback. At the board meeting announcing the program’s creation, he said lawmakers had offered little input, but had questioned whether DOC even had the statutory authority to create the program itself.
Within hours of the plan’s announcement, Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, issued a press release calling the program “reckless” and urging Fallin to ask DOC to reconsider the plan. (Biggs has since left the Legislature after President Donald Trump appointed him to the Farm Service Agency.)
Days later, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s press secretary told The Frontier that Fallin “did not endorse” Allbaugh’s plan.
“The governor’s staff met with the Department of Corrections and expressed their concerns about the proposal,” Michael McNutt, Fallin’s press secretary, said in a statement to The Frontier. “The governor’s office certainly did not endorse the plan, but recognizes it to be a reaction to the challenges DOC faces in regard to managing the growing inmate population.”
But still, DOC forged ahead with the plan.
In a press release, Biggs characterized DOC’s plan as a type of blanket release where more than 1,400 inmates would be let out of prison. In response, DOC spokesman Matt Elliott said it was likely that, at most, only half of the 1,400 inmates would make their way to supervised release.
“We’re talking about a (prison) system that has 63,000 people in it,” Elliott said at the time. “So this is one very small component of what we’re hoping to do under the law.”
It’s unclear how much enthusiasm remains for the program, given the small number of inmates who have been released so far. On Wednesday Allbaugh praised state lawmakers in a release for advancing six bills that would theoretically help stem the state’s projected population growth. In March, prison officials announced that without programs to divert people from prison, the state would need three new prisons to be built at a cost of about $2 billion.
The reform bills advanced by lawmakers on Tuesday would “help reduce ODOC’s inmate population by an estimated 4,851 beds,” according to a DOC press release. “This would help the state avoid an estimated 67 percent increase in its inmate growth over the next decade.”
“The advancement of these bills is an important step in the right direction to slow our prison population growth,” Allbaugh said in the release. “This, however, does not change the fact that the state still needs two new medium-security prisons to help us retire old, obsolete facilities.”
The released inmates
Offenders who have convictions on violent offenses, “85 percent” offenses, sex offenses, domestic-violence offenses, drug-trafficking, consecutive sentences, pending felony cases or who have active protective orders were not eligible for the program.
So who was eligible?
At the time, Allbaugh said some nonviolent, minimum-security prisoners who were within 18 months of completing their sentences could be released under GPS supervision and supervision by a probation and parole officer. Those offenders would be required to report to a probation and parole officer within five days of release, and must contact their parole officer at least twice a month.
According to records released to The Frontier, the seven inmates (six men and one woman) who were granted supervised release include one person convicted of embezzlement, and six convicted of drug crimes like possession with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance, or manufacturing a controlled dangerous substance.
Overpopulation in Oklahoma prisons is not a new problem, and previous prison administrators have tried, to varying degrees of success, to solve the issue in the past.
In 2014, under former DOC Director Robert Patton, 740 inmates were released from prison after their “early release credits” were reinstated.
Those credits, intended to help inmates who stay out of trouble leave prison early, had been taken away due to inmate misconduct, prison officials said. That program simply reinstated the credits, allowing the 740 inmates to be released from prison, some of whom were released without supervision.
One of those inmates was a man named Desmond La’don Campbell. Campbell, in prison for an attempted kidnapping conviction, had lost 365 days of earned credits after being punished for three minor misconducts, according to a Tulsa World story from 2014.
In March of 2014, records showed he had 393 days remaining on his sentence. But in April the number was dropped to zero after the credits were restored, and Campbell left prison.
Two months later Campbell began a series of rapes and sexual assaults of mostly middle-aged and older Tulsa residents. The attacks lasted for nearly a month before Campbell, leaving the scene of his final sexual assault, crashed his car into a pole and severely injured himself.
Campbell was comatose following the crash and later died. He was never charged with the attacks, though then-District Attorney Tim Harris held a press conference announcing the charges he had intended to file against Campbell.