The Norman Transcript

August 17, 2013

Oklahoma jails becoming overcrowded as population keeps climbing

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The prisoner population at the F. Dewayne Beggs Detention Center reached 500 this week. Of those prisoners, Undersheriff Rhett Burnett reported that about 25 percent are Department of Corrections bound.

“The biggest issue here is I have 123 inmates that DOC won’t come get,” Burnett said. “I’m rapidly losing the ability to segregate inmates for medical, disciplinary and administrative reasons.”

The three pods or main housing units that comprise jail are near maximum capacity, he said. The National Institute of Corrections uses an 80 percent rule — if 85 percent of the beds are full that’s actually overcrowded because at that point jail administrators lose the ability to segregate and separate inmates, Burnett said.

Inmates often need to be separated for various reasons to ensure the smooth operation and oversight of the jail and its population. Problem inmates and inmates with medical issues are examples of some that might need to be moved around.

Burnett said the biggest reason county jails are overcrowded in Oklahoma is because there is overcrowding at the DOC facilities. Because the state prisons don’t have any beds, they can’t take in the inmates in county jails who have already gone through judgment and sentencing and are awaiting transport.

Midweek, Cleveland County was housing 109 prisoners with judgment and sentencing already completed.

“The ones I have J and S’s for I can bill DOC, but they don’t pay enough,” Burnett said.

And the reimbursement doesn’t relieve crowding.

“The budget board and the (county) commissioners have been real helpful, but that’s not the issue,” Burnett said. “No one here in Cleveland County is not part of the solution.”

Burnett said he gets it that DOC is full, but state lawmakers need to take action to remedy the problem soon. He said many other counties are experiencing the same problem with crowding.

“It’s not just a Cleveland County problem,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, is part of a group of lawmakers looking for solutions.

“I just toured Mable Bassett and Joseph Harp,” Standridge said. “They’re full to capacity. We need more beds or less people in prison. This year was a tough year with the budget, so hopefully next year we can tackle this problem a little more aggressively.”

Standridge is on the subcommittee for appropriations for public safety which includes prisons as part of its purview.

“I think we need to look at how many people we have in prison and ask if we need more beds,” Standridge said.

He said it also would be appropriate to re-evaluate who’s in prison and whether there are appropriate programs for rehabilitation.

“I’m doing an interim study on DOC and drug addiction,” Standridge said. “My study is designed to look at how big a problem that is, and whether we’re treating it appropriately.”

By presenting drug treatment options inside of prison, it might be possible to reduce recidivism. Standridge said about 85 percent of people inside Oklahoma prisons have former or active drug addictions. While he believes people should pay the penalty for crimes already committed, treatment could help prevent those people returning to prison down the road. Funding programs is an issue, however.

“There are only so many dollars,” he said. “We have to be as efficient as we can with them. We can’t do everything we want to do.”

Joy Hampton