What's at stake: Prison powder keg

Back in March, a member of the Board that oversees the state Department of Corrections (DOC) delivered a blunt message to the state’s elected officials about the impact that growing inmate populations and funding cuts were having on the department’s correctional facilities:

Board member David Henneke said the Department of Corrections can’t continue to lose employees and keep the public safe.

“Someone at the Capitol has got to understand we can’t continue the way it is, or someone is going to die,” he said.

Two months later, the warnings coming from the DOC have only gotten louder and more urgent:

“We’re primed for something major,” prisons director Justin Jones warned lawmakers recently, saying the prisons are full and 1,500 convicts are waiting in county jails to be transferred in. With wardens now filling exercise rooms and dining halls with inmate beds, “If there is a recipe for disaster, we have all the ingredients cooking right now.”

The main ingredients were laid out in a presentation shared at a joint meeting of the House and Senate subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary in late April (which we have posted as a PDF to our website).  This year has seen a net growth of 639 inmates in the department’s prison population while the department’s budget was cut $26.8 million due to the state’s revenue shortfalls. To balance this year’s budget, the agency has spent down emergency and reserve funds and enacted a wide range of cost-cutting measures, including: cutting all operating budgets;  cutting rates to private prisons and half-way houses; reducing community sentencing local funds; closing training facilities;  reducing or eliminating all offender programs; and doing away with employee recruitment, retention, and training incentives.

Most alarmingly, what DOC has also been obliged to do this year is cut prison staff. The agency has always been sparsely staffed: according to data shared at the legislative meeting, Oklahoma in FY 2007 had 1 correctional officer for every 8.9 inmates, compared to ratios in neighboring states ranging from 1 officer for every 4 inmates in New Mexico to 1 to 5.3  in Missouri. This year it has maintained a tight hiring freeze and conducted voluntary buy-outs and involuntary RIFs (reductions-in-force) to eliminate over 200 positions. Staffing of correctional officer positions is now at just 72.8 percent of its authorized level.

Looking ahead to next year, the Department faces additional expenses of $5.3 million for mandatory increases in retirement contributions and employee benefit allowances; $5.0 million to annualize this year’s inmate growth; and $20.8 million to substitute for one-time cuts enacted this year. On top of this will be additional appropriations cuts that appear inevitable as part of any FY ’11 budget agreement. Should the agency see its FY ’11 funding cut by 7.5 percent, it anticipates having to enact the following measures:

  • Eliminate community sentencing;
  • Close and consolidate facilities;
  • Furlough all employees 23 days; and
  • Terminate 659 employees

The chart shows that under the 7.5 percent funding cut scenario, DOC would be looking at housing 2,800 more inmates next year compared to FY  2003 with almost 700 fewer employees.

If the numbers don’t speak for themselves, Director Jones explicitly laid out how combustible the combination of an increased inmate population and reduced staffing may be:

Jones says he doesn’t know what he’ll do with more prisoners. “When I take them and start putting them on the floors and I start triple-celling, someone is going to lose their life that works for me,” he said.

The warnings are loud, clear, and frightening. Is anybody listening?


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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