Private prisons are bad policy, but they’re not to blame for Oklahoma’s incarceration problem

Private prisons have a very bad reputation among criminal justice reformers, and it’s well deserved. In recent years, the ugliest outbreaks of prison violence toward correctional officers and among inmates have occurred in Oklahoma’s private prisons, underlining the dangerous conditions in those facilities. Advocates warn that the profit motive of private prisons leads to cutting costs at the expense of safety and rehabilitation and that the industry’s lobbyists spend big to support punitive justice policies to ensure prisons remain full.

These claims have merit, and no one seeking a fairer, more effective justice system should advocate for more private prisons here or anywhere else. But blaming private prisons for Oklahoma’s deep incarceration problems is misguided, and limited resources should be focused on the important opportunities for progress we have in the current legislative session.

Without private prisons, Oklahoma’s overcrowding would be even worse

As of last month, there are about 26,800 people serving prison sentences in Oklahoma, of whom about 22 percent – 5,900 people – are housed the state’s three privately operated prisons. That’s more than twice the national rate of 9 percent of all state and federal prisoners. In addition, the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, Oklahoma – a facility built by the one of the largest private prison companies – is leased and operated by the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma has been scrambling for years to find beds for its ever-growing prison population, and in the midst of persistent budget shortfalls, officials have crowded more and more people into existing space. But while public facilities are bursting at the seams, housing about 113 percent of their intended capacity, private facilities are at only 99 percent capacity. According to their contracts with the state, the Department of Corrections (DOC) can’t send more inmates to those prisons than they were designed to hold, so overcrowding concentrates in public facilities that are decades old and in dire need of repair.

In his budget presentation this year, DOC Director Joe Allbaugh pointed out that public prisons would be at 151 percent of capacity if they had to absorb all prisoners currently held in private prisons. Until the Legislature appropriates enough money to DOC to build new public facilities – at a cost of about $400 million each – there’s no feasible way to reduce the state’s reliance on private prisons in the near future.

The influence of private prison lobbying in Oklahoma is easily overstated

Advocates often point to campaign donations and lobbying efforts made by private prison giants like the GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly called the Corrections Corporation of America) as evidence that policymakers have a financial stake in pursuing punitive justice policies. Indeed, both companies have contributed thousands of dollars to Oklahoma candidates in recent years, including Governor Fallin. Many powerful state legislators also receive donations from those companies.

Contrary to the expectations of some advocates, however, these contributions haven’t dissuaded Governor Fallin from being among the most outspoken advocates for criminal justice reform in the last two years. At the end of the 2017 regular session, she publicly called upon the Chairman of the committee overseeing criminal justice to pass several bills aimed at reducing prison growth. She has kept up the pressure this year, citing justice reform as a main request in her State of the State address before the 2018 legislative session. This is not the kind of advocacy one would expect from a politician in the pocket of a special interest.

Lawmakers and advocates should focus their efforts on smart ways to reduce prison growth

Oklahoma’s corrections system is in deep crisis, and the most pressing need is for reforms that divert offenders away from prison and toward evidence-based supervision and rehabilitation programs. Lawmakers can avoid all prison growth over the next ten years if they pass the Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force proposals in their entirety, saving the state nearly $2 billion and keeping over 9,000 people out of prison by 2026. Advocates should make every effort to ensure that they do.

It’s not a coincidence that private prison companies saw their stock rise after the 2016 elections. At the federal level, there has been a marked backlash against the criminal justice reform movement, and there are good reasons for concern about a more aggressive approach to drug crimes. The political dynamics within Oklahoma, however, are very different. There’s widespread bipartisan agreement on the need to change our approach to justice, and the fiercest opposition is coming from prosecutors, not corporate interests. Reducing incarceration in all its forms should be our number one concern; focusing on the problems of private prisons is a luxury we don’t yet have.


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.

12 thoughts on “Private prisons are bad policy, but they’re not to blame for Oklahoma’s incarceration problem

  1. I am highly disappointed in OK Policy for printing this, it is a horrible article based on deeply flawed arguments and a lack of understanding of the history of private prisons in Oklahoma. Frank Keating literally rigged the process and derailed state justice reform efforts in the mid-1990’s specifically to pave the way and create a market for private prisons in Oklahoma. We are overcrowded BECAUSE of the influence of private prisons on policy in the 1990’s, and Fallin and (if Republicans have their way) Todd Lamb perpetuate those archaic, racist policies, with minimum occupancy requirements in private prison contracts and the continued undermining of current justice reform efforts. I could give you the entire history lesson of WHY our prisons are overcrowded specifically to benefit private prisons, but honestly, I expect OK Policy to already know that dark history of our state. While you’re at it, dig into the next generation of for profit warehousing of humans, including CCA’s and GEO Group’s moves to take over halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers, and electronic monitoring of convicted felons, who are getting longer and longer post-incarceration sentences. I greatly appreciate OK Policy’s hard work, but please don’t fall for fake justice reform from the Republican Party designed to launch the next generation of for profit human warehousing. – Mark Faulk, Oklahoma County Chair of the Democratic Party

  2. As a follow-up, I would acknowledge that Kris Steele, a former Republican legislator, has made sincere efforts to reform our broken justice system, but even his efforts are being undermined by those currently in power. He is the exception to the rule, and I’m grateful for his efforts.

  3. Well, this may be a first in that you have over looked many aspects of private prison’s business plans and operations , whereas they are always at the capitol offering more options than true criminal justice reform . On numerous occasions I witnessed private prison’s lobbyist and governmental affairs staff successfully persuade governors and legislative leadership to increase per diem rates and bed capacity while state employees were facing furloughs. Expansion of private prison beds in Oklahoma were many times the result of private prisons negotiating that alternative to deter legislative reform progress in criminal justice. They even lobbied successfully to change cell phone introduction into a prison from a misdemeanor to a felony. Their rate of misconducts and subsequent loss of earned credits by offenders results increasing length of time served that contributes to over crowding.

  4. I have zero sympathy for DOC’s financial plight as far as this state is concerned. I do have sympathy for the workers and inmates who are having to deal with this mess that prosecutors, judges, and greed of politicians and private prison companies have created. I do not want to hear the states bellyaching and whining about it. Make the punishment fit the crime instead of automatically locking everyone up. This will greatly reduce the problem. I speak from experience, having to live without my fiancé , his children having to live without him over bogus, trumped up embellished charges that Stephens County decided to throw on him simply because he has a record. Once you have a number in this state, you are screwed. A speeding ticket turned into felony eluding overnight. Of course, it did not stick, but the damage was done. Only 3 months left of his probation through Garfield County and Judge Newby decided to revoke his full 4 years citing the felony eluding. Robert had not even been to court over that charge, yet Judge Newby stayed, “Because you committed Felony Eluding, I am revoking the full 4 years of your probation.” Judge Newby convicted him of this Stephens County charge in Garfield County Court, 2 months prior to Roberts hearing in Stephens County for this charge. I was there. I have the paperwork to prove it. Guilty before proven innocent. That is what our so-called justice system is all about in this state. I listened to a Stephens County deputy lie on the stand after getting video of him driving over 100 mph to this hearing. Mind you, he is the same deputy who cited Tobert for speeding then attempted to change the charge to a felony. I also witnessed a Duncan Police Officer lie on the stand as well as Roberts PO. I have physical proof of their lies, but none of that mattered. Lock him up!!! Break his children’s hearts, his family’s hearts, ruin their lives. It’s all ok as long as they get what they want. That is what the state of Oklahoma’s system is about. It has nothing to do with doing what’s right. Yes, Robert needed to face and accept punishment for violating his probation. But this is highly excessive. Reform does not need to end with future inmates. It also needs to start with those who are currently incarcerated over petty, stupid crap. And another thing….. How is it legal to add another year of post imprisonment supervision to a sentence that is completely discharged??? Another form of greed.

  5. All of your comments are well taken, but I’m still convinced that in the current moment, private prisons are mostly a distraction from the core causes of our incarceration problem: punitive sentencing laws, tough-on-crime prosecutors, and a calcified supervision system. No doubt they’ve had influence at the Capitol. But DA’s have been far more active and influential in scuttling reform in the last two years. No doubt that private prisons are worse on credits and prolong sentences, but our Pardon and Parole process does much more damage by allowing only token numbers of people out.

    That’s why the Task Force bills are so important, and why private prisons should be, for now, of secondary concern.

  6. Let’s see where do I start…well the private prisons are a business that have no business in Oklahoma!!! My husband and I spent 13 horrible years in private prisons!!! and getting rid of them can’t happen soon enough!! Now on to the pardon & parole board…the chances of ANY inmate getting pardoned, paroled, or a commutation with the current board is nill, zip, nada!!! There is a judge,a former asst D.A, a retired cop and son of an Ok Co D.A.,and someone that used to work for Okla D.O.C…. Now I don’t know about you, but I call that stacking the deck! Which leads me to the person in the Gov’s Office who has been in bed with the private prisons since day one, and appointed the members of the p&p board.and the only reason she’s pushed for the prison reform bills is because she doesn’t have anything at stake….she’s at the end of the road due to term limits! Now just incase you were wondering, I am not new to all this…. was born and raised here in Okc,and I have been involved with DOC since 1969 to the present, and no, I haven’t worked for the I know what I’m talking about. In short we need to clean house from top to bottom!!!!!

  7. Their all involved! And it’s due to the private prisons.They’ve got to all of em. It’s a skeam! For Profit Private Prisons is the reason! And their all making profit. Working together to make sure people have no constitutional rights anymore. My son had no chance at Trial. I watched his Indigent Attorney, the District Attorney, and the Judge work together to be sure that his Bias Jury came out with a Guilty verdict. And it didn’t end there. The court clerks sent the wrong Judgement and Sentence to A&R tried to give him 2 more years than sentenced. On one of his charges they had 3rd conviction. And my son had NO priors. And he was told he needed to drop one point to go to a minimum. He did the first week at the private prison. Dropped 2 points and went to 4th level. Then told he had to wait 90 days before he could put in his packet for a minimum facility. He patiently waited!Signed signed his packet Feb 24,2018 he is still waiting it is now June 8th,2018. They kept his packet for months. Wanting him to stay there in their minimum that is not even advertized that they have one. Their Classification lied to me 3 times about sending his packet to Population.And the court clerk also neglected to put all his co defendants on his Field File. And he got sent to where one of them are at. Classification knows this and still did not dend packet. I just knew he would win his Appeal cause he was done soo wrong at Trial. Nope it got sent unpublished, and doesn’t even make sense. Sounds like a high school kid did it. I’ve been reading Appeals for 3 years. My sons does not sound like the others. No explanations on their decision like the others either. Their all working together to fill the Private Prisons and keep them their. They denied me,my mother,and my sister visitation. They want them secluded. My son has had NO visitors since Dec. And this his first time in prison. And now they are on lockdown for an Institutional Sweep they call it. And there’s no pacific date for this to end. So now my son can’t even call me. My only contact is a letter providing they let him have it. They choose what letters he can have. Makes him supply the stamp to send return mail.This kind of treatment is what makes people suicidal! This is what makes them give up hope and just not care anymore!It’s all their faults. All have been against him. And whats messed up is he got convicted with NO evidence!!

  8. I am not going to lie and say that my loved one that is currently incarcerated in a private prison in Oklahoma is without fault in landing where he is. That is understood. However, these are people and not animals. They feed them slop (shredded bologna, spaghetti covered in ketchup), they put 20 people in a 15 x 20 dorm. They control who they see, what they eat and who they can talk to and when. Unlike state run prisons, there is no commissary or telephone privileges. They are completely cutoff and you, the law abiding citizen who is visiting their loved one, is considered a criminal as well by the guards who are paid 10.00 an hour to sit and stare at the wall and get fatter than they are. There are drugs there, there are cigarettes there. They put these men together with nothing constructive to do, except weed eat and mow and play tiddly winks. Then if they break one rule they get penalized by adding time to their already ridiculous sentence.

    My loved one was a homeless drug addict who bought stolen merchandise to buy drugs. He was busted with one dose of heroine and meth in his jean pocket at a casino where he was hanging out trying to keep warm during the coldest time of the year. He did over a year total in county jail. The court decided drug court would be a good fit for him (another joke the state has its hands in). They take an addict and tell him he has to find a job, get a place to live and go to AA meetings 2 times a day and report to his PO twice a week. All while trying to hold down a job. Oh yeah, nobody is in a hurry to hire a drug addict, even McDonalds. So with no job, no car and no money (he was supposed to pay $50.00 a week in fines plus $75.00 for each random drug test). He of course failed miserably. He went back to jail and was given a 7 year sentence at a private prison. He is high every time I see him. He lost his “prison” job because he had smokes in his pocket. He is now mowing and weeding the facility grounds, and pretty much doing nothing all day. The smuggle in cell phones so they can talk to their loved ones.

    They are lucky if they have loved ones who can bring them a box 1 time a month with things like peanut butter, bread, ramen noodles, ravioli, coffee, sugar, clothes, shoes and underwear. I can’t imagine what the poor souls with no family does because they are not going to clothe them or feed them in the prison. It is pathetic. We need to get these people the help they need, counseling, job training (use them to build roads, construction, electrical), trades, AA meetings and religious help. Instead we keep running them through the system by the thousands under the guise of rehabilitation? What a joke. They come out worse than they went in, but the fat cats get their money. They always do. Oklahoma is an embarrassment to the country.

  9. Let me add that it took 3 mths for my son’s packet to get to Population to be approved to go to a minimum facility. Couple weeks after he was finally approved he gets a bogus write up.And a guard was positive it was his celle at first. Then they both go to jail cause neither would admit to it. Took 2 days to get a blanket in jail. And all of a sudden a guard comes to jail with a piece of paper for my son to plead guilty or not guilty and sign it. Cause now this female guard is positive that it was my son that did it. supposedly happened during count with both in cell lockdown. He was not given a chance to defend himself. They have no proof but the female guard walking outside of building. And am told ya can’t even see in those windows unless ya get right up on them. He even Appealed at the facility. Which I assume goes to Warden. Maybe the same guy that did write up. He said, One Guy did it all. And of course denied appeal. So then he went to file a greivance to a higher up. They told him No, that Appeal is all he can do. So now doesn’t even have a packet for minimum. Can’t fight the write up that he did not do! And his case worker still makes him think he’s just waiting for a bed. been 6 mths he wondering why their pulling everyone else but him. So a person can get stuck in a private prison forever if they can write anyone up and not investigate or give them a chance to fight it. Just cause a guard says it happened and was positive that fist his cell then it was him. Positive she say. Can’t file greivance,can’t hire attorney, can’t take before a Judge NOTHIN. Where is the Justice in that? He was denied a Fair Trial, Due Process and goes to prison same thing again. That’s how they get depressed amongst other things.

  10. I totally agree .with you… And the private prisons are not to blame. It’s the dirty corrupt justice system.Bogus charges trumped up made to put or keep them in jail they lie cheet … They have had ahold of my son since he was 17. Judge gave him boot camp he got to A_R they sent him to private prison instead of Boot camp how I don’t now .. I do now this was his first time in trouble 3 years. In prison at age 17 turned 18 days later. It’s no place for someone that young….. Now if he gets pulled over hes treated like a murder he is now in prison for 7 years for stuff he didn’t do we try to fight it. . The system is made to make them plea out or they sit in county jail HARD TIME .Untill they do…guilty or not they don’t care their pleading guilty or sit in county jail my son did for over a year becouse he not pleading guilty when he’s not… ITS UNFAIR HOW THEY HAVE RUINED HIS LIFE FOR DOING STUPID KID STUFF NOW FOR REST OF HIS LIFE HE 35 NOW..YOU. Guessed it if you though he.plead out to guilty just to get out county an go to prison to trumped up charges that state put on him …that he not guilty of . prison is no place for him now he stuck with real bad people . I now if he’s their that their are more like him that schould not be in prison for The s type of charges its so wrong .OKLAHOMA IS THE DIRTIEST JUDICAL SYSTEM I HAVE EVER SEEN… PRIVATE PRISONS ARE NOT PUTTING THEM IN THE POLICE AND COURTS ARE…LOOK THEIR STOP THEM FROM LIEING. TRUMPED UP CHARHES AN D.A. WHO JUST WANT POINTS AN NUMBERS…

  11. I work in a private prison. We have to follow policies, policies that are written by the state. We follow them more closely than the state itself, otherwise, we would have consequences. I understand the system can frustrate people from the outside looking in. They feel helpless and don’t know who to turn to for answers. I deal with that every day. There are programs to help the inmates who want it. GED, anger management, electrical and horticulture and a whole host of other programs designed to prepare inmates for the outside. All free to them. Some of these programs give credit and helps reduce their time. I eat lunch at the prison every day so I know the food is edible. I’ve never had shredded bologna or spaghetti covered in ketchup. They are housed one person per bed which is two to a room. Of course they control who they see, to make sure they aren’t going to bring in contraband. It’s prison not a daycare. Friends and family can put money on their books to order extra food, envelopes and stamps through the commissary. Inmates in general population are free to use the phones except during count. Private prisons cannot add time to a sentence. They can take away time built up with credits earned but that is few and far between. Only in the worst of circumstances. They have cable and Xbox, basketball court, baseball field, workout equipment, heat and air, hot meals and showers. They even have hobby and crafts. Some even have jobs they get paid to do and don’t have any bills. How is that teaching responsibility? They live better than I do and I work for a living. Inmates are also able to file a grievance. There is a procedure they must follow. Like everything else in prison. Trust me, EVERYTHING is investigated. Policies are in place to not only protect the inmates from themselves and other inmates but also protect the hard working employees as well. Private prisons provide small communities with jobs. I’m not saying they are perfect. I’m just simply saying it’s not the private prison that’s the problem. Many of the state’s prisons are old and in need of serious repair. We are not allowed to be over populated like the state is. And I might add. Duh…it’s a business. Of course it’s for profit. It just happens to be a business of housing inmates. I may not agree with the political side of it but overall it’s still a good thing. I agree that change needs to start with the current laws and practices of incarceration. I believe everyone needs to be a productive citizen. Pay a living wage so we aren’t all living in poverty. That might help. I’ve seen commutation taking place; people being released for small drug possession charges. Each case is different and they have guidelines they must follow before the inmate can qualify. I’ve seen inmates rising above their circumstances. I’ve also seen correctional officers attacked, bodily fluids thrown on them, and had heart attacks due to the stress in managing inmates who despise and hate them, all because they wear a uniform. It’s a job. We want to go home safely to our families too. I also know inmates lie to their families to send them more money, saying that they are starving, when actually they owe a drug debt. Yes, drugs and cigarettes do get in. Inmates are crafty, they find ways. Many precautions are put into place but they will find a way around it. As the saying goes, “If there is a will, there is a way.” Before I started working at a prison I had no clue. Now that I’ve been here I see why things are set up the way they are. I see why people act the way they do. I see why there are so many policies in place. I understand that there are bad apples wherever you go no matter what profession you’re in or what company you work for (corrections or not). We’re all human. We all make mistakes. But this is one job that will put you in prison if you make a mistake. So…no pressure here. Just remember before you unleash your frustration on a private prison employee, stand in their shoes. We are under strict scrutiny from DOC and its policies, corporate, and the public. Do not judge a man on his position in life, but how he handles the position he is in.

    1. @Private Prison Employee… Is there someone you can direct a person to if their loved one has waited 2 months to get their minimum packet approved. He is being told it could take months but I feel like they should have some policy and procedures that must be followed and someone to ensure process and procedures are being followed with paperwork and they aren’t getting stuck for no reason. We all have someone we have to answer to and we can’t just not do our job or allow our work to fall far behind. I need to know how to ensure even with Covid and the closure of Cushing that he’s getting a fair shake.

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