“Nobody’s old enough in the Legislature, practically, to remember McAlester in the early 1970s,” Wright said, referring to a three-day prison riot at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the summer of 1973 that left three inmates dead, more than 20 guards and inmates injured and a dozen buildings burned to the ground. “We’ve got the potential for that again.
“There’s a train wreck coming around the corner.”
Prison officials have been warning the Legislature and elected leaders in Oklahoma for the past two decades about a growing crisis in the state’s prison system, but little has been done to stem the increasing tide of inmates.
Pushed hard by former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, a soft-spoken minister, the JRI initiative was designed to improve public safety in part by diverting some nonviolent offenders from prison through treatment and monitoring, freeing up funding for targeted policing, and eventually saving the state millions. But some of the significant reforms in the package were gutted in the Legislature, and emails among Fallin’s top aides suggest enthusiasm from the governor’s office quickly waned as Steele’s term in the Legislature neared an end.
Fallin’s General Counsel Steve Mullins, the governor’s lead policy adviser on corrections, maintains Fallin fully supports the new law and its implementation, as well as additional reforms aimed at improving the state’s correctional system.
“The governor cares a lot about this issue,” Mullins said. “We’re locking up an awful lot of people in Oklahoma and we’re not getting good results.
“It’s a broken system.”
But efforts to change the system or reduce harsh criminal penalties in Oklahoma, like many other states, have faced bitter resistance over the years from elected officials concerned about being labeled soft on crime during their next election or amid opposition from prosecutors, a powerful lobbying force.