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July 28, 2013

State penitentiary inmate population declining

NORMAN — The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, the oldest prison in the state, has seen its inmate population fall to less than half of what it was five years ago as officials move hundreds of the state’s most dangerous convicts to private prisons.

The decline has been so steep that some state lawmakers, corrections guards and others wonder if “Big Mac” will become home only to Death Row and the execution chamber or if the prison will eventually be closed.

As of the last weekly count, 574 inmates were at the facility, compared with close to 1,400 in early 2008.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials say there are no plans to close the maximum-security prison. Some inmates, such as those on Death Row and with serious mental illnesses, could not be moved to private prisons for legal, public-policy and cost reasons, they say. But the steadily deteriorating facilities raise questions about the prison’s future.

In a June 11 statement, the DOC said that it plans to keep the penitentiary in operation “for years to come,” although “the goal is to reduce the facility offender population to approximately 600.” The agency received money in fiscal 2012 to build a new administration building, install a stun fence and move inmates to other facilities. Cell houses were closed because they were “old and not cost-efficient to operate” or posed safety issues, the statement and corrections officials said.

Meanwhile, the state’s prison population keeps rising, and county jails are overcrowded with inmates who wait to be transferred to state prisons. Tulsa County has sued the state over the issue. The corrections department says its system is 98 percent full, and it lacks the funds to contract for more private-prison beds. Recent efforts at criminal justice reform haven’t cut the incarceration rate in Oklahoma, which has the third highest in the nation.

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