The effects of budget cuts on Oklahoma prisons are hidden but dangerous

hands in prisonNo state agency has escaped budget cuts unscathed. For many Oklahomans, the effects are most visible in their schools and communities, as their children lose teachers and their friends and neighbors lose needed health care services.

Less visible is the toll that budget cuts have taken on Oklahoma’s prison system. Appropriations to the Department of Corrections have fallen from $527 million in 2005 (in 2015 dollars) to $485 million this year. That’s just enough to keep decaying facilities operating at minimal staffing levels as all “extras” — the services to treat and rehabilitate offenders — are cut to the bare minimum. The result is a dangerous situation inside prison walls, with inadequate supervision, no treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and little hope for rehabilitation for the state’s inmates.

Oklahoma’s prisons are dangerously understaffed

At the most basic level, the Department of Corrections simply doesn’t have the workforce to adequately staff all of its prisons. While the prison population grows steadily each year, the number of correctional officers has declined precipitously. Since 2000, the inmate population in public prisons has grown by over 26 percent, while the correctional officer workforce has declined by 25 percent. While prisons are filled to 122 percent of their operating capacity, DOC is funded for only 67 percent of its staffing needs.

For the staff that remains, very low pay further exacerbates the problem. With a paltry starting salary of around $26,500 – just above the poverty level for a family of four — even funded open positions for correctional officers go unfilled. With such poor pay and working conditions, it’s no wonder that staff turnover is extremely high, at about 35 percent per year.

Our failure to staff prisons appropriately has already had tragic consequences for inmate and officers alike. Between 2001 and 2012, there were 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates – more than three times the national average. In September 2015, four inmates were killed during a riot at the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private prison in Cushing. Correctional officers are desperate: “It’s only through the grace of God that the prison population and gangs let our guards go home every night,” Department of Corrections Interim Director Joe Allbaugh said at a recent Oklahoma Watch-Out forum.

Badly-needed mental health services aren’t available

The problems with inadequate staffing don’t end with correctional officers. The Department of Corrections can’t compete with private sector salaries for mental health professionals. As a result, as of last year, 10 of 62 psychologist positions and 3 of 8.5 psychiatrist or prescribing-provider positions were unfilled.

[pullquote]“Only seven of Oklahoma’s 17 major prisons were built to house inmates. Most were originally built to be boys’ homes, hospitals, or armories; some were built before Oklahoma became a state in 1907.”[/pullquote]

That means that despite a growing number of inmates with serious mental illness, very few receive services. Out of 9,432 inmates with symptoms of severe mental illness in 2014, fewer than 3,000 inmates received an individual therapy session per month, and only 851 attended a group session. The vast majority go untreated, or are merely prescribed drugs, neither of which can be seriously thought of as adequate treatment.

Vital programs are squeezed out to make room for more inmates.

Only seven of Oklahoma’s 17 major prisons were built to house inmates. Most were originally built to be boys’ homes, hospitals, or armories; some were built before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. About 1 in 6 beds are “temporary,” squeezed into gymnasiums and other public areas.

Such severe overcrowding pushes out vital rehabilitation programs and leaves the Department of Corrections simply warehousing people. As Director Allbaugh put it,

“This is how we shoot ourselves in the other foot: we take program space away from those programs that men and women [who are] incarcerated absolutely need. A lot of our population has no training, no education, so programs are things to better themselves so when they return to society they become a credit to society, not a debit to society.”

The situation is only getting worse. In early May, the Oklahoma Board of Corrections approved a plan to lease the North Fork Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed last year, and operate it with Corrections staff. The state will move inmates from community work centers to the 2,400 bed facility, expecting to save $18 million by consolidating the smaller facilities. Similar moves have been considered in recent months in Minnesota and Michigan, as states reluctant to build new prisons see an opportunity to ease overcrowding with already-existing private facilities.

The Corrections crisis doesn’t receive as much attention as the crises in Oklahoma schools and hospitals; it’s much easier to ignore the plight of people who have committed crimes than of elementary school students or cancer patients. But incarcerated Oklahomans are also sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents, and grandparents. And budget cuts are having debilitating, and sometimes fatal, consequences in prisons. If we hope to allow formerly incarcerated Oklahomans a chance to turn their lives around and to return home as productive citizens and engaged community members, we need to invest in better conditions in our prisons — and we absolutely can’t allow them to deteriorate any further.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

9 thoughts on “The effects of budget cuts on Oklahoma prisons are hidden but dangerous

  1. Wait hold on. Didn’t we just approve the funds to build a SECOND prison?? if they are hurting so bad then how can the prison system afford to build a second county jail???

  2. You information regarding North Fork in Sayre is incorrect. It is NOT Work center offenders who will be sent to NFCC. The offender population at OSR Granite is moving to NFCC Saye and the offenders from 15 work centers across the state are being relocated to Granite.
    This move and change will save the Department millions of dollars used to operate the Work Centers.

  3. Will there be enough work to do in the Granite area to put these work-release prisoners to work? Doesn’t the communities use these people who get paid only 17 cents an hour to save money repairing roads, pickup trash, ect…?

    I wonder why the big spike in prisoners happened in 2013…

  4. I also wonder apetty, if they are using them for road repairs and trash pick up, why is it that the entire oklahoma county road network is in such poor repair? Direct example Nw Expressway and May bridge yesterday. That bridge should not have come down by being struck by a tractor cab. also why is there so much garbage along the roads? I went for a walk with my daughters the other day, and my daughter found a freaking dildo on the side of the road ( she is 5). What are these ‘work release’ inmates really doing? where is the money coming from that oklahoma county recently approved to build a second county jail? where is the half a billion coming from to restore the capitol? where are the millions upon millions going that have been gained by the lottery? Do not say DHS services, bc DHS is closign offices left and right, and workers are loosing their jobs. How can she ( our governor) manage to loose so much money in so little time? we had billions in rainy day funds and in savings.

  5. I don’t see what the problem is except the under payed officers. It talks about mental illness therapy. I’m going through a tuff divorce, my children need therapy but can’t afford it and people are worried about individuals that had their chance and made their choice and are in prison for it. I’m of the opinion that society and tax paying citizens owe it to our children to fund public education and therapy for our for our kids not inmates. The way I see it if they want murder each other have the guards sit back and let it happen as population control. Their in prison so they obviously don’t care to obay the law why stop inside a prison.

  6. It is that very attitude that has Oklahoma incarcerating more of its population (many former tax payers) than any other state in the country. If you believe simply locking someone up solves anything spend 1 night in any county jail in oklahoma and the treatment you get delivered with your first meal there will change your mind permantely! Lots of good people make mistakes locking them up and treating them like animals only does 1 thing. Constantly reminds someone who was already struggling that no one cares. And then we wonder why they dont care when they get out… seriously when did we decide human lives dont matter! That mentality is the evil that will one day be the demise of what was once a great nation founded by great men who were proud to be Humanitarians….

  7. Well this is what our great state gets when they think that locking up their population is gonna did their problems… As you can see it only makes it worse and your great officials are getting fat in pocket for their private prisons cause they have stock in them so Lord forbid we find another solution to letting non violent offenders. Now a days you can spit on the sidewalk and be sent to prison in Oklahoma.. You sorry dirty officials need a good looking at while your trying to make a name for yourselves like you hate drugs and stealing money from honest individuals. Your crooked and you need to be locked up as well instead of overlooked. 500 drugstops in 4 days and took innocent people’s money and didn’t find any drugs not made any arrests but still you took their money and all this was overlooked. How dare you take people’s money hiring security guards to pose as police officers Jason Hicks Stephens County you need to be locked up with your lying dirty officials

  8. This is a bunch of crap!!! There would be a lot less overcrowding problems if ppl like my man and several others I know were not put in there over petty crap! Also…. If it is indeed community work center inmates going there, does that mean they will not get lowered security credits? It also means my 3 hour drive that in all likelihood was going to be cut in half to visit is now going to be the same 3 hour drive, just in a different direction. I do not want to hear all the bellyaching, whining, and crying over budget cuts and prison overcrowding when the problem can be diminished greatly by making the punishment fit the crime instead of just throwing everyone in the system just to put another political notch in someone’s belt!!!

  9. The way I see it is that Oklahoma officials got themselves in a wreck by trying to save here and there and got further in debt and still sinking. It is not about what some of you people think. Just because a person done crime or not they are still human being and like I said before, some of the people in there are in for petty crimes and don’t deserve to be there but this great State we live in believe in it’s so called fix it officials where they let their courts and officials do this locking up over stupid stuff and putting them further debt. I agree that they should help the offenders cause it is those people that may be locked up now but will be out again, if they don’t get the proper needs they need then who’s to say what will happen. And as far as looking down on criminals, you people need to understand that people can be thrown in for probation violation and it could be as simple as not being able to pay their fines and not wanting to further get in trouble with doing something else to catch another case they get locked up instead. You people need to realize that even our great governor has had her own daughter incarcerated doing Fed time for drugs so anyone no matter how well you think you’ve done raising your kids can get locked up so don’t put them down. That could very well be you or your family or any one close to you in there over nothing. Wouldn’t you want someone to help you? Well until you been there to see what it’s like then keep your snide remarks to yourself. I for one have been there and know what it’s like I have a child there now and a husband so I know all about it that’s why I speak on it cause I have loved ones incarcerated and they do not need to be treated like trash. Plus they do need proper care they are human beings. If you ever been locked up you’ll see how crappy you get treated you can’t get medical, you eat food that is marked on the box NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION you are a Nothing or a Nobody to them just a number so don’t speak on it until you’ve been there or have a loved one there. It’s bad enough we have to lose someone to the state but to hear how you people that wants to look down on Criminals you will look at it differently when you have a loved one locked up for a petty crime. Our officials need to pull their heads out and do something if they want to ease the rate of incarceration they need to let our people out that is non violent, bring the 85% down to 50% and quit worrying about their stocks and the pennies they will be losing out of their already fat bank accounts and put their head on and do something to bring the State out of the great debt they are in.

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