This post was written by OK Policy intern Matt Simmons. Matt recently completed his MA in American history at the University of Tulsa. He will be enrolling in the history PhD program at the University of Florida this fall. He can be found on Twitter at @mattfsimmons.
This post is the first in a series on private prisons in Oklahoma. This topic is particularly relevant in light of the recently announced resignation of Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC). Jones’ career with DOC spans almost forty years, with the last eight as director. Certain individuals familiar with the inner workings of the DOC believe Jones’ resignation is due at least in part to his opposition to the expansion of the private prison system in Oklahoma.
This post will add some historical context to the debate over private prisons by briefly describing the history of their use at the national and state level.
Private prisons are nothing new. Their history can be traced back to 18th century England. In those days private jail keepers charged their prisoners lodging fees. For the wealthy, this meant hard time was softened by coffee shops and beer on tap; for the poor, this meant they were overcharged for subpar provisions and exposed to disease. In the United States, a private/public partnership ensured that prisons were often filled through less than ethical means in order to provide cheap contract labor to business interests. This convict lease system was notorious for working prisoners to death.
Over time it became apparent to many that mixing private profit and public safety was not in the public interest. Progressive reformers and their allies targeted the convict lease system, finally eliminating it in the early 20th century. (For a more detailed discussion of convict leasing see Jane Zimmerman, “The Penal Reform Movement in the South during the Progressive Era,” and Matthew J. Mancini, “Race, Economics and the Abandonment of Convict Leasing.”)
Fast forward to the 1980s, when a slew of tough on crime measures across the United States resulted in skyrocketing prison populations. The “war on drugs”, combined with mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws caused the national incarceration rate to increase 700 percent between 1970 and 2005. State corrections departments were ill-equipped to house the increase, so many states, including Oklahoma, turned to private industry to counter the rising tide.
Oklahoma’s experience with private prisons began in 1995 under the administration of Governor Frank Keating, who had a law enforcement background as an FBI agent and United States attorney. The Oklahoma prison population was already increasing prior to the Keating Administration. Because of this, the Oklahoma Legislature had passed a law allowing early release for certain prisoners when the prison system reached 95 percent of capacity.
Governor Keating wanted to take things in a different direction. With Keating’s support, the legislature approved a “truth-in-sentencing” law requiring certain categories of prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. As a result of this and other measures, Oklahoma’s prison population began to increase even more dramatically. Since 1995, the number of incarcerated Oklahomans has grown 47 percent, from 17,983 to 26,363 inmates, many of which were sent to private prisons. By the third year of the Keating Administration, 5,000 private prison beds had been leased by the state.
Oklahoma falls behind only Texas and Mississippi in its per capita incarceration rate: 659 per 100,000 individuals, according to the 2012 Oklahoma Senate Overview of State Issues. Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate has resulted in a public prison system stretched at 99 percent of capacity, even as years of neglect have left the state with a crumbling public prison infrastructure. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that there has been renewed interest from the Board of Corrections and others in leasing additional beds from private prisons .
There are six private prisons in Oklahoma, only four of which are currently occupied. These private prisons are owned and managed by two out-of-state corporations: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group. Corrections Corporation of America owns the Cimarron, Davis, and North Fork Correctional Facilities, while Geo Group owns the Lawton Correctional Facility. Of the four currently occupied facilities, Davis, Lawton, and Cimarron house only Oklahoman prisoners. North Fork is occupied solely by prisoners from California. Currently 5,335 Oklahoma inmates are held in private prisons, and contracts with these prisons cost Oklahoma $73 million dollars last year.
The next post will explore a cost benefit analysis of private prisons and examine whether taxpayers really get more bang for their buck with these facilities. The final post will look at how the private prison industry has influenced Oklahoman legislators through campaign donations and targeted lobbying efforts. It will discuss who in the state capital has benefitted the most from their association with the private prison industry.