Oklahoma’s move away from private prisons (Capitol Update)

Due to a $24.4 million budget cut for FY 2021, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) cancelled its contract with the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private prison in Cushing. During negotiations, ODOC offered to decrease the number of beds in each of the three private prisons in Oklahoma by 500 which would have allowed all of them to remain open. However, Cimarron owner CoreCivic decided to close the Cushing facility. The facility is a $1 million per year utility customer of the Cushing Municipal Authority and employs 294 people making it one of the largest employers in the region.

Early commutations and perhaps other causes have decreased the total Oklahoma inmate population by a bit more 3,000 this year. Interestingly, although they house less than one-third of ODOC inmates, more than half of the decrease in population was taken from the private prisons. By the end of August, the private facilities were operating at 72 percent capacity, having started the year at 93 percent. A 72 percent capacity likely makes the private facilities difficult, if not impossible, to profitably sustain.

One of the initial arguments for use of private prisons was the private sector operates prisons more efficiently than the state. If that is true, it would seem ODOC should be moving prisoners into rather than out of private prisons and closing state facilities which are known to be in poor repair. So, what is going on? First, private prisons are probably not cheaper, or budget watchers would insist on their increased use. Second, there is likely a tendency of state agencies to favor saving state jobs rather than contractor jobs. Third, the kinds of beds in the private prisons may be less needed. But fourth, importantly, the private prison movement has peaked.

Private prisons as a public policy never seemed like a good idea to many, and advocates for prison reform are increasing in numbers and influence. Making a profit from state-imposed punishment raises lots of red flags. I, for one, do not believe over-incarceration is primarily due to private prison lobbying, although it would be naïve to think that communities do not resist closure of job-producing facilities once they are online. But over-incarceration is mainly due to a “law and order” mentality that swept the country beginning in the 1970s along with the war on drugs.

With the prison population increasing at 150 inmates per month early in my legislative service in the 1980s, I remember Speaker Dan Draper declaring “we are not going to build any new prisons.” And as Speaker, he made it stick. We kept passing law-and-order bills, but in lieu of building prisons, we passed in 1983 a cap on prison population that triggered automatic early release of some non-violent offenders when the inmate population reached 95 percent capacity. The cap law was unpopular, but it worked to stop prison building for several years. We also resisted proposals to contract with private prisons as bad public policy. 

But in the late 1990s as the inmate population continued to grow, the state began contracting with private prisons, and the Legislature repealed the unpopular cap law in 2001. The continued passage of harsh sentencing statutes, the elimination of the cap law, and the availability of new beds have resulted in the over-incarceration we see today. CoreCivic plans to continue offering the Cimarron facility to other governmental entities, but I would not count on it having a lot of success. Incarceration may have reached its peak. Private prisons are no longer a successful business model and may soon be a relic of the past, hopefully along with mass incarceration.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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