The Norman Transcript

September 20, 2013

Vacant Oklahoma private prisons could reopen

By Shaun Hittle, Oklahoma Watch
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Two vacant Oklahoma private prisons, in Watonga and Hinton, may be close to reopening.

The companies that operate the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga and the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton have posted job openings or are hosting job fairs to staff the prisons.

However, details about when the facilities could reopen and where inmates would come from are unclear. The prisons are the only vacant private prisons in the state. Four others contain inmates.

Robert Spencer, a Watonga city council member, said city officials have been told by Corrections Corporation of America, which owns the Diamondback facility, that the company is hiring 400 workers for the prison in preparation for a new contract.

Steve Owens, a spokesman for CCA, confirmed the company is hiring for a future contract at the Watonga prison but would not specify where inmates would come from or when the prison might reopen.

Inmates could come from another state, such as California, which now houses inmates at a private prison in Sayre, or through a federal agency, such as the Bureau of Prisons or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

CCA has posted job openings for various positions at the Watonga prison, and a warden has been named, according to the CCA website.

The prison, whose capacity is about 2,100, closed in 2010 after Arizona ended its contract with the company.

Meanwhile, in Hinton, Mayor Shelly Newton said representatives from Geo Group, which operates the Great Plains facility, have been hosting job fairs in preparation for a new contract.

The Great Plains prison, which has a capacity of 2,000 inmates, closed in 2010 after Arizona also ended its contract for that facility. Newton said reopening the prison would greatly benefit Hinton’s economy. The city has about 2,000 residents.

“It’d be a good thing for Hinton,” she said.

State prison officials and legislators have talked about renewing contracts at the two private prisons to help alleviate the state’s prison overcrowding issues.

Oklahoma’s prisons are at 99 percent capacity. Three other private prisons in Holdenville, Cushing and Lawton house about 5,800 Oklahoma inmates, but the prisons are nearly at capacity as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has steadily moved inmates to private facilities during the past several years.

Oklahoma Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, is conducting an interim study on the possible expansion of private prison use and will present those findings in October. Blackwell has said leasing open beds at Watonga or Hinton or both might be the only option for the state.

It’s not clear how or if reopening the prisons in Hinton and Watonga would affect the potential move of Oklahoma inmates to those facilities, said Jerry Massie, Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman.

Massie said the agency has been monitoring developments at both facilities, but it’s unknown how many beds may be filled by out-of-state inmates.

If outside contracts are signed and staff is hired for the prisons, “there’s less startup time” if Oklahoma decides to contract to also place inmates at the facilities, he said.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.