As Oklahoma’s incarceration rate soared throughout the 1990s, the private prison industry saw a business opportunity.
The Corrections Corporation of America, which today is known as CoreCivic, struck a deal with state officials and opened the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville in 1996. By 1998, two new private prisons—the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing and Lawton Correctional Facility—had opened and were housing thousands of state inmates.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has depended on these private prisons to relieve overcrowding in public facilities and house some of the state’s most dangerous offenders. But a recent DOC board decision and prison population trends suggest Oklahoma may not have to rely on private prisons forever.
The board voted July 15 to vacate the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility with a rated occupancy of 1,650 inmates. The DOC initially suggested reducing the population in the state’s three private prisons by 500 as a cost-saving measure, but CoreCivic, operator of Cimarron, instead proposed closing the facility.
Once Cimarron closes on Sept. 15, Lawton and Davis will remain as the state’s only private prisons. The two facilities house 3,750 inmates, or 16.7% of Oklahoma’s prison population.
Vacating a private prison would have been much more difficult just two years ago. Though some of the decline may be attributed to a backlog of criminal cases and county jail transfers caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Oklahoma’s prison population has dropped 17.9% since July 2018. Overall prison capacity has also dropped considerably in the same timeframe, from 108% to 88%.
The path to abolishing private prisons
In 2017, 28 states used private prisons to house state inmates, according to data compiled by The Sentencing Project. Though a growing number of these states are passing legislation that phases out private prisons, the process isn’t quick or easy.
In May 2019, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill that will end the state’s use of private prisons by 2022. Nevada housed just 575 inmates in private facilities in 2017.
Five months later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill barring the state’s corrections department from entering into a new contract with any private corrections company. The law will phase out all private prisons in the state by 2028.
Though legislation aimed at phasing out Oklahoma’s private prisons has not been introduced in the House or Senate, the idea has been kicked around by a few Democratic politicians.
During a September 2018 gubernatorial debate, Drew Edmondson said he would work to reduce the state’s incarceration rate and “wean ourselves from private prisons and the business of incarcerating people for profit.”
Former state senator Connie Johnson, who represented a district in northeast Oklahoma City from 2005 to 2014 and authored several criminal justice reform bills, has remained a vocal opponent of the private prison industry. During her 2018 gubernatorial run, Johnson publicly supported a federal lawsuit that claimed Mary Fallin, Frank Keating and other state leaders who took donations from private prison companies had purposely obstructed criminal justice reform efforts to reduce the state’s prison population. The lawsuit was dismissed.
With most of Oklahoma’s recent criminal justice reform efforts coming from state questions and not the legislature, Johnson said it is unlikely that any bill seeking to phase out private prisons in Oklahoma will gain traction. And because private corrections companies also operate halfway houses and treatment programs, a divorce from the industry is nearly impossible, Johnson said.
“If they go away, they come back as a different animal,” she said. “To think that we’re going to get up from under the influence of private prison interests to me is unrealistic.”
Obstacles to overcome
Even if Oklahoma continues to reduce its prison population, two persistent issues stand in the way of the state phasing out private prison — a lack of corrections officers and limited medium to maximum-security bed space.
Understaffing has plagued the DOC for several years. Corrections officers across the state are working long overtime shifts, with facilities failing to meet minimum staffing recommendations. During a recent overnight shift at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, there were 20 guards looking after 750 inmates, Oklahoma Corrections Professionals executive director Bobby Cleveland said.
“They’re working 16 hours a day, five days a week,” Cleveland said. “That’s a lot of hours for one week, and it gets dangerous from the stress you’re under. If you make one little mistake it could be major.”
Though Oklahoma’s overall prison occupancy rate has dipped to 88%, the state’s six medium and maximum-security male prisons are 94.8% full with 388 beds available. That number will likely rise above capacity as Cimarron’s inmates are transferred.
The state could simultaneously increase bed capacity and reduce its private prison population by leasing and operating a vacant private facility.
The DOC currently leases and operates the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, a medium-security prison owned by CoreCivic which housed inmates from California from 1998 to 2015. The five-year, $37-million lease is set to expire in 2021.
Leasing a prison, as opposed to buying, would provide flexibility if more criminal justice reform efforts are enacted and prove successful, Carl said.
“If you expect your prison population to decline, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a prison,” Carl said. “If it’s a short term solution, then maybe you lease for a short period of time and then you dump it when you can.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.