Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Editors note: On Saturday, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections sent a release disputing some of the Bureau of Justice statistics.

“Unfortunately, none of this is a surprise,” said Joe M. Allbaugh, ODOC Director. “In fact, we expect Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to eventually be the country’s highest. This is due to the limited results of criminal justice reform in our state – and Louisiana’s successful reform efforts that will reduce how many people that state sends to prison.”

However, ODOC officials believe the BJS report may be misleading.

It claims Oklahoma had one of the largest declines in prison population of any state from 2015 to 2016, stating there were 1,700 fewer inmates in ODOC’s custody when comparing year ends (2015 = 28,114, 2016 = 26,486).

While the report accurately reflects the state’s prison population at year end, it does not account for inmates sentenced to prison and awaiting transfer to an ODOC facility.

The chart below reflects ODOC’s inmate count for the last working day of each calendar year. Using this data, prisoners decreased 545 from December 2015 to 2016 and 197 from December 2016 to 2017.

Those changes are far less dramatic than those the BJS reports – and are in fact negligible when one considers that there were 62,355 inmates and offenders in ODOC’s system and waiting to come in Friday morning.

The original story is below

Oklahoma’s incarceration rate fell from second to third highest in the nation in 2016, according to data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of prisoners in Oklahoma state and federal prisons declined by nearly 6 percent, according to the BJS’s National Prisoner Statistics Program, putting Oklahoma third in terms of incarceration rate, behind Louisiana and Delaware.

It was the largest single-year drop in prisoner numbers since at least 1979, according to the BJS data.

Nationally, the number of prisoners fell by a little more than 1 percent in 2016, the report states.

However, the BJS data, which does not include the number of offenders on parole or monitored release programs, also shows that the decline was mostly among male prisoners. The number of female prisoners in Oklahoma only declined by 0.7 percent, according to the data.

For years, Oklahoma has had one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, especially for female prisoners.

But while numerous groups and government officials have sought ways to lower the prison population, it may be too early to celebrate the new BJS numbers, which only go up to 2016.

According to Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ weekly prisoner population count, the year-end population of state prisoners appears to have increased from 2016 to 2017 by around 1.5 percent, and the number of incarcerated females increased by around 4 percent.

An Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman said the department’s population officials were still digesting the report as of Thursday morning and were yet unable to comment on the BJS numbers or respond to questions about its own year end prisoner counts.

In late 2017, the department made a budget request for the next fiscal year of more than $1 billion to pay for employee pay raises and to build two new correctional facilities, including a medium security women’s prison, to address the state’s high prison population.

The department is also in negotiations with the private prison company CoreCivic to lease one of the company’s empty private prisons in Watonga, an arrangement that would likely be similar to its lease of CoreCivic’s North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre. However, there are currently 120 beds at the North Fork Correctional Facility that are empty because the department does not have enough correctional officers to fully staff the facility, according to department records.

A second report issued Wednesday on Oklahoma’s prison population, this one from the criminal justice reform advocacy organization The Sentencing Project, focused on the explosive growth of life sentences in the state over the past 20 years.

Between 2003 and 2016, the number of life sentences and sentences of more than 50 years grew by 42 percent, and the number of life without parole sentences grew by 93 percent, the report found. The growth was found to be much faster than nearby states and the national average, according to the report.

“A likely explanation for the continued expansion of life sentences is that crime convictions that previously would have received shorter, non-life sentences now receive life sentences due to the upward drive of all prison sentences that gained momentum in the tough on crime era,” the report states.

Though a smaller percent of prisoners in Oklahoma are serving life sentences (12.4 percent compared to 13.9 percent nationally) the effect of the growth in life sentences being handed down is putting a strain not only on Oklahoma’s prison system but families and prisoners as well, said Kevin Armstrong, president of OKCure, a prisoner advocacy group.

“You’re putting people in there and they’re kind of never coming back out or not for a very long time. That basically means you’re going to be putting other people in there, even for the short-term, but there’s going to be less room,” Armstrong said. “You’re going to have to build bigger prisons or you’re going to have to squeeze in a few more, like a terrible comedy of how many people can you squeeze into a phone booth? At some point you’re going to bust the thing open.”

And the conditions created by more prisoners spending more time in overcrowded situations is not good for anyone, Armstrong said.

“It comes at a time when, across America, we’re starting to see it go the other way. Prisons are closing up, there’s not as many, they’re not overcrowded,” Armstrong said. “We’re on borrowed time here. It’s a powder keg that’s going to blow at some point.”