At least 18 people died from drug overdoses in Oklahoma prisons in 2023, a sharp increase over the previous year. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is struggling to hire and keep correctional officers. The agency is also combating a constant stream of contraband smuggled into prisons, including drugs.

The number of fatal overdoses is expected to grow. Another 29 deaths at Oklahoma prisons last year remain under investigation and toxicology test results are still pending. 

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Oklahoma State Penitentiary had at least six overdose deaths last year — the highest of any prison. But the maximum security prison in McAlester is one of eight Department of Corrections facilities that lacks drug treatment programs. 

Fentanyl is also a growing problem in state prisons. At least 14 of the deaths last year involved fentanyl, up from 11 in 2022. The potency of fentanyl and its presence in other drugs smuggled into state prisons has contributed to the rise in overdose deaths, said Kay Thompson, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections.

Ongoing staffing shortages could contribute to the spike in overdose deaths because there are fewer people to search mail and visitors coming into prison, said Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a group that represents Department of Corrections employees. 

“A lot of prisons are so short of staff they don’t have people to watch the yard. When you have things like that, you’re going to get more drugs coming in, and you get more fentanyl coming in,” he said. “fentanyl is a major killer.”

Nationwide, from 2001 to 2019, the number of incarcerated people who died as a result of drug or alcohol intoxication increased by 623%, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Contraband smuggled inside prison walls continues to pose a threat to prisoners and staff, Steven Harpe, executive director of the Department of Corrections told lawmakers at a budget hearing in January.

“It’s still something that we’re struggling with to get our hands around,” Harpe said. 

But the Department of Corrections didn’t ask state lawmakers for additional funding this year for substance abuse treatment, security improvements or to recruit and train more officers. The agency asked the Oklahoma Legislature for $552 million in state appropriations for the 2025 fiscal year, the same amount as the previous year, and said staffing and programs were already built into the budget. Thompson said the agency has $2.7 million in next year’s budget for all prisoner programs, including substance use treatment. That figure doesn’t include salaries and benefits. 

Some prisons lack treatment programs

Incarcerated Oklahomans battling addiction behind bars may not get the treatment they need for recovery. Eight of the Department of Corrections’ 22 facilities across the state don’t offer drug treatment programs.

There is also a waiting list for prison treatment programs. The length of the wait depends on the prisoner’s needs and the facility, Thompson said. 

Programs are on hold at three facilities because the Department of Corrections is short-staffed.

Lack of funds and a shortage of qualified professionals at prisons in rural parts of the state also prevent all facilities from having treatment programs, Thompson said. 

Former prisoner Darrell Wiggin says drugs have always been rampant in prison, but he noticed more of a problem during his last few years of incarceration. Wiggin spent 35 years in state prisons after a 1988 conviction for first-degree murder and other charges. He’s been out on parole since February 2023, when he was released from Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. 

Wiggin said the lack of programs and recreational activity combined with low staffing causing lockdowns have made drugs a significant issue. And there were fewer classes for prisoners to take. 

Thompson attributed the decline in programs for prisoners to the coronavirus pandemic beginning in 2020, which made it unsafe for contractors to come into the prisons. 

The agency also doesn’t plan on adding new programs to the eight prisons that don’t have treatment options. Instead, it is focused on expanding existing programs. 

“If we get enough staff and enough money, sure, we’ll put them at all facilities, but right now we’re just focusing on growing those programs,” Thompson said. 

Combating smuggling over prison walls

People try to smuggle drugs and other contraband into state prisons through drones, bag drops over fences and smuggled in by visitors, staff or through the mail. 

Some contraband comes into prisons through deliveries disguised as Amazon, Walmart and Target packages, Thompson said. 

Federal authorities intercepted one package sent through the mail that contained 2,500 fentanyl pills headed to the Davis Correctional Center in Holdenville in 2022. 

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The Department of Corrections announced Friday that seven people had been arrested in connection with various recent attempts to smuggle contraband into three prisons. Smuggled items included cell phones, Xanax, fentanyl, methamphetamine, marijuana, tobacco, cigarette lighters and electronics.

Corrections employees also sometimes bring drugs into the prisons. Since Jan. 1, 2021, Oklahoma district attorneys have charged 27 corrections officers for bringing contraband into prisons, Thompson said. 

The Department of Corrections has invested in technology upgrades to help staff reduce all contraband, but said it couldn’t release some details for security reasons. The agency also has jammers to block contraband cell phones, drone detections to stop drug drops over prison fences and drug-sniffing dogs. 

Thompson said the agency could ask for additional funding from the Legislature next year to upgrade mail scanning, fencing and to fund other projects needed to combat drugs inside prison.

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