COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.
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In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections on March 13 suspended visitation to Oklahoma prisons. Last week, the Department of Corrections released an initial pandemic planning guide. These were appropriate first steps, but much work remains to ensure the health and safety of inmates, law enforcement, corrections staff, and the broader community. Because Oklahoma still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, this problem will require more comprehensive solutions than those offered so far.
People in prisons are especially vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illness because they are housed in close quarters and have less access to soap and clean water. In recent weeks, officials have urged the public to practice social distancing and to wash their hands more frequently as part of the fight against the COVID-19 virus. These remedies are essentially impossible for those who are in prison. Oklahoma prisons already face a Hepatitis C crisis for which they are understaffed and underfunded to manage. Oklahoma’s policymakers will face yet another life-threatening health crisis that they cannot manage if they do not address overcrowding and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections does not implement more robust, evidence-based procedures to combat this health emergency.
Prisons must make efforts to reduce overcrowding and prepare for possible spread
Oklahoma’s corrections officials, lawmakers, and policymakers should work with the Governor’s office and the Parole Board to expedite releasing as many aging and immunocompromised inmates as possible, provided that these individuals do not pose an immediate risk to public safety. Oklahoma state prisons are currently at 108 percent capacity. About 20 percent of the population is over the age of 50, which is the age group most vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 virus. Officials should consider the safe, early release for people suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes that increase the risks of infection and death, as well as those who are pregnant or have just given birth.
Unless more decisive action is taken, a COVID-19 outbreak in Oklahoma’s prisons could be a potential death sentence for thousands of vulnerable Oklahomans and prison staff. About 75 percent of Oklahoma’s state prison population are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. This means that Oklahoma should be able to responsibly follow the example set recently by states during this crisis. Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and California have released as many inmates as possible to protect those in custody and the public from this emerging pandemic crisis.
Additionally, corrections officials and lawmakers should work with the Governor and the Parole Board to expedite release for people eligible for parole and community supervision. This should include people currently incarcerated for parole or probation violations of a technical nature, such as failure to pay fees or missing assigned classes.
In all cases, elected officials and policymakers should create procedures and coordinate with county and/or city governments to ensure newly released individuals have access to medical care, health insurance/Medicaid, housing, and other necessary services.
Oklahoma’s ongoing incarceration crisis makes this public health emergency more challenging to manage. The state can reduce the risk of a wider outbreak by safely reducing the population of these overcrowded facilities and investing in procedures to protect the most vulnerable. These efforts can protect the public good and save the lives of countless Oklahomans both inside and outside prison walls.