Williams, however, is more critical of an increasing reliance on private prisons, though he concedes they may be needed in the short term.
The answer to the corrections overcrowding “is not adding more space,” he said. “We’re just warehousing.”
Moving inmates to private prisons “is a slippery slope” that could lead to wasteful spending, Williams said. Private-prison contracts often require states to guarantee payment for a minimum capacity. If Oklahoma is able to reduce its prison population in coming years, it could end up paying for unfilled private-prison beds. “How do we back out of that later?”
Blackwell and Williams agree that while private prisons might be needed in the short-term, long-term reform is needed to address prison overcrowding.
“We’ve got to look at who we’re locking up,” Blackwell said, referring to non-violent offenders who might better be served in a community corrections setting instead of costlier prisons.
Williams said the focus should be on locking up violent offenders, not drug and non-violent offenders, who make up 52 percent of the state’s inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. Overall, Oklahoma’s prison population has grown to nearly 27,000 inmates, from about 4,000 in 1978. The state needs to find ways to keep low-level offenders out of prison, he said.
“We care more about violent offenders than we do about a joint,” he said. “They will call me soft on crime, and that’s OK.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.