By Ken Miller
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Board of Corrections voted Friday to hire an Arizona prison official to head the Oklahoma Department of Corrections after the longtime director resigned last summer amid highly publicized clashes with the governor’s office and legislative leaders over finances and the growing use of private prisons to house inmates.
Robert Patton, 50, division director of operations of the Arizona Department of Corrections, was hired at an annual salary of $160,000 to succeed Justin Jones, who spent about seven years as DOC director.
“I look forward to his tenure and a successful and long-lasting term as director,” said board Chairman Kevin Gross.
Patton’s hiring also comes about a year after Oklahoma’s package of prison reform laws, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, was approved, but has since fallen from favor.
Patton said that he is aware of the initiative touted in 2012 as way for Oklahoma to reduce its prison population, help inmates with health or mental problems and save money on future prison spending, but has since gone largely undone or unfunded.
“The packet was given to me last night, I have not read it yet so I cannot comment on it,” Patton said.
Patton said he met with Gov. Mary Fallin Thursday and that she expressed a desire for an open and transparent relationship, without getting into the running of the Corrections Department or pushing for more inmates to be housed in private prisons.
“Her concerns are the same as mine, are our prisons safe, are our staff safe, are our offenders safe,” Patton said.
Fallin issued a statement praising the selection.
“Robert C. Patton is an experienced and skilled manager,” Fallin said. “He knows how to run an agency and manage a large budget. Most importantly, he is dedicated to keeping his prisons safe for both guards and inmates.”
The governor said her priorities include increasing guard and inmate safety; improving employee compensation; greater oversight of private prisons; and reforming the department’ internal operations.
Patton said his first order of business is to ensure public, staff and inmate safety.
“Salary is an important factor, make no mistake about it, but there’s a lot of other things ... that makes your life better,” as a prison employee, Patton said. “The first day, the first hour that I’m here I expect to get a full briefing on where we are population-wise, where we are staffing-wise and where we are offender-safety wise.”
Patton, who said his career began in 1985 in Arizona as a prison guard, plans to begin work in a few weeks.
The board also heard from the head of Avalon Correctional Services Inc. The department sent a letter to the private prison operator on Tuesday saying it would remove all of the more than 200 state inmates from an Avalon halfway house in Tulsa because of infractions that included a brawl among inmates.
Brian Costello, Avalon president and chief operating officer, offered two proposals in an effort to keep state inmates at the facility.
Avalon will remove the facility administrator and post a full-time, around-the-clock Corrections Department monitor at the halfway house until any agency investigations are complete, Costello said.
Gross, the board chairman, said no action could be taken on the proposals because they were not listed as an agenda item.
“I encourage you to continue to work with DOC leadership to resolve these issues,” Gross said to Costello.
“We’re going to work with the DOC, try to make sure we do everything they want us to do,” Costello said after the meeting.
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