Corrections officials doubled down on their decision to close a northwest Oklahoma prison while facing questions Tuesday from lawmakers who argued that decision was made behind closed doors with no public or legislative input.
Tricia Everest, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of public safety, said William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply is a 19th century prison that needs more than $30 million in immediate repairs. She said closing the 1,100-bed prison about 15 miles northwest of Woodward, is “right and proper,” but acknowledged officials bungled the communication.
Everest said while top state officials, including Stitt had already approved plans to close the minimum security prison by the end of the year, the public was not supposed to find out so soon. However, news of the closing was leaked to The Woodward News, which led the DOC to “hastily” publicize its plans June 16. State lawmakers and local leaders questioned why DOC had written closure plans in place by May 13, but didn’t inform them until the news broke publicly.
Despite “the poorly timed and executed rollout of this announcement,” Everest said she’s confident the closure of the prison, which currently employs 142 people and houses 414 inmates, is the right decision for the state.
“It is fiscally prudent because we cannot justify the continued expenditure of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to patch up a dilapidated facility that is no longer needed,” Everest said.
She said work has already started to find new jobs for the affected employees, and most employees have said they will stay with the agency and move locations.
Everest also said it was not DOC’s job to conduct economic analyses. The agency’s job is to protect the public, employees and inmates.
Jason Nelson, deputy public safety secretary, said the prison has decades of deferred maintenance and he’s worried that it could be forced to have an emergency evacuation of inmates due to the failure of the structure. Prison officials told lawmakers that crews cannot repair the roofs until the structure is repaired because of fears that the building may not support their roofing equipment. They said walls are leaning and separating and the prison is rapidly deteriorating.
But prison officials said even if lawmakers invested in fixing the structure, the plan would still be to close it.
State Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, said the Legislature allocated $17 million of a $116 million bond package to pay for repairs to the ailing prison. Yet, he said correctional officials later — and without seeking legislative approval — opted to spend the bond money on other prisons.
Prison officials said the closure will save taxpayers an estimated $1.3 million a year. It currently costs about $15.5 million to run the prison. Correctional officials also said that they expected to see additional savings in payroll costs, but said they were not yet prepared to discuss that savings.
State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, said three corrections board members — all from Tulsa — previously discussed the closure at a meeting held behind closed doors, but state leaders did not seek input from anyone in northwest Oklahoma.
“I don’t see this as an opportunity,” he said. “I see this as a death sentence to a community.”
Murdock said northwest Oklahoma is already hurting for jobs and the closure will have a ripple effect throughout the community. The prison closure will likely cause the Harper County Community Hospital to close because of $250,000 in lost revenue. Local leaders said the prison comprises the majority of business for the hospital.
“You cannot say that DOC is immune from either helping or hurting an economy on their decisions,” he said. “I think this was a hasty decision.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.