Oklahoma prisons at risk during COVID-19 health emergency

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

27 thoughts on “Oklahoma prisons at risk during COVID-19 health emergency

  1. We need to emphasize that older inmates even with a violent conviction are the least likely to return. We have many inmates convicted as children who have spent decades in prison and never committed another violent act.

    1. Don’t you suspect part of the reason they’ve not committed additional violent crimes is because of the fact that they’ve been incarcerated? As you stated, some even for decades?

  2. Another issue is the conditions inside tulsa county jail, they are currently running low on food and inmates are. Not being fed adequate meals . As well as sewage backing up into at least one of the inmates showers. The inmates are afraid for their health and safety and family’s are ready to take action as inmates tensions are growing

    1. Dick Conners Correctional Center has made it next to impossible for the inmates to get the overhead exhaust vents turned on. These exhaust vents pull in fresh air through the windows and expell the possibly Infected air out through the roofs. For those that don’t know, DCCC does not have air conditioning. All I’m told it takes to turn on these exhaust vents, is to open a door and to flip a breaker switch, unfortunately the staff at DCCC are playing the run-around game with the inmates, they are all saying that they do not have a key, and telling the inmates to ask another doc worker to turn on the vents. These vents are important to the air quality within. The prison and the health of those locked up within DCCC prison.

  3. Richard Fox @ DCCC in Hominy, OK, (40+ years incarcerated), Married, (Colorado Home-Owner), Licensed Welder, Decades on Level 4…, AGE 60… God says, “Let My People Go.”

  4. What Donetta (above) said is true… Richard Fox (above for example) was incarcerated as a teenager (age 19) and have never committed another or been apart of another violent act in more than 40 years.

  5. My son is in dick Conners Correctional Facility in Hominy Oklahoma he told me that the inmates have been trying to get the prison staff to turn on the exhaust vents these exhaust fans pull in fresh air through the windows and expelled the potentially infected air out the roof. All it takes is the keys to unlock the door and flip a breaker switch to turn on the exhaust vents . Unfortunately the d o c staff has been giving the inmates the run around about who has the key to the door. The vents cold be life-saving if the Coronavirus hits the prison system unfortunately staff there are unable to figure this out on their own also some of the vents here have been disconnected or not working thank you.

  6. My son is in Dick Conners correctional institute in Hominy Oklahoma he told me that the inmates have been trying to get the prison staff to turn on the exhaust fans they keep saying that somebody else has the k e y s they need to turn on the exhaust fans to take the infected air out and bring the good air in through the windows they do not need to get the coronavirus in the prison system’s thank you

  7. Our loved ones need us and need us to petition and speak up in time likes these for them. This situation has shown that it will get worse before it gets better.There stating that we haven’t even hit the peak of this pandemic. This is just no time for anyone’s loved ones to be locked away.

  8. Hello my fiance Deshawn Wells is in the Oklahoma county jail and is still awaiting doc transport. His 45 days of being held there is shortly approaching. An I’ve been calling for him a early release but everyone I speak with says he would have to go to the A&R assessment center first. But he only has signed for a 3 year non violent sentence and should be allowed to come home on a leg monitor.

  9. My son is 30 yrs old with heart problems and halfway through his sentence. Although he’s on a violent sentence, he took a plea for 8 yrs it should Not turn into a life sentence due to these conditions. He been sober and not gotten in any trouble. He works and has maintained a level 4. Complete several offered classes. Has young children that would benefit from his presence. He is my only natural son. No mother wants her child to die in prison.

  10. Lori Leatherman my husband is severe diabetic 1st degree robbery but not armed 35 years been in 6 years no further acts level 4 since been in. He is in a special program to get his GED and has been sober since he has been in .he is in cimarron correctional facility in Cushing Oklahoma they’ve had several CO positive for Corona virus and exposed inmates.

  11. Sherry Eaton. My son is in Cimmaron correctional facility has been for 6 years. He is only there on possession of cds. He is nearly 50 years old falls under the 1269 bill they keep jacking him around. I am 72 I need him home. The staff doesn’t have to wear masks there if they choose not to the inmates do what good is that they are not the ones bringing it in.

  12. I am still trying to see what is the point of them locking the inmates down if the staff for one is bringing the virus in. Then they are limited on what can be purchased.

  13. Inmates have been Lockdown. Since March 13 , 2020 because of The Coronavirus.. This is So wrong. ..This is not the answer..Lockdown until When??

  14. I pray God Help bring my son Phillip Edward Hall Home..Where he be safe. . and that he will not die in Prison from the Coronavirus..

  15. I. Pray my son Phillip Edward Hall would come Home ..and be safe . and that he will not die in Prison from the Pandemic. Covid-19

    1. I can’t imagine what you are going through..I’m sure you are terrified for your son
      I’m really wondering if the system cares at all.
      I have absolutely no faith in the judicial system!
      Too many dishonest cops.
      The police officers in Stephens Co
      Are as dishonest as can be.
      I have proof,but of course no one listens.
      So sad..so wrong!
      Praying for you
      Hope he gets released

  16. 2 of my boys one in Conners and one in Cushing .only time ever in truble .all ready close to parole .no word constantly worred about the fact that they don’t care if they kill my son.they don’t deserve a death sentence. If it was yours than you would care.. and you never know when it could be yours….It was a shock and surprise to me too..

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