The Norman Transcript

September 20, 2013

State’s growing, aging prison problem brings challenges

By Andy Rieger
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s population grew by about 23 percent between 1980 and 2010 but its prison population during the same time saw a more than 500 percent increase and continues to grow, the former director of the state prison system said Friday.

Justin Jones, in his first public presentation since leaving the Department of Corrections this summer, said compared to other states Oklahoma locks up a lot of people that have “high needs” but are relatively low risk offenders.

Our rate of recidivism is comparatively low, he said, because many of those who are incarcerated wouldn’t be coming back anyway. Oklahoma spends about 7 percent of its appropriated revenue on corrections.

“We are a nation that relies heavily on incapacitation and incarceration to solve our criminal justice issues,” Jones told the regular meeting of the Tyner Cornbread and Beans luncheon.

Jones, who began his corrections career as a probation officer in 1977, talked of two and three generations of families in the same prison. Reaching at-risk youth before they have a felony conviction is the best prevention method, he said.

“The best indicators of a pathway to prison are your biological parents and your Zip Code,” he said. “We know where the next generations of prisoners are coming from. Seventy percent of them are the children of current inmates.”

Seventy percent of the incoming inmates have some kind of substance abuse problem and the percentage of inmates with mental health issues has risen 400 percent in the past 40 years, Jones said. He said the number of inmates over 50 grew 45 percent this past year, presenting health and other aging issues for corrections officials.

Oklahoma’s reliance on private prison beds was a topic of several audience questions. Jones said he was not opposed to outsourcing some government services but prisons and law enforcement may be different.

“People in prison are disenfranchised. They can’t vote. Most of their families don’t vote. Politicians tell me it’s not sexy to appropriate more money for prisons,” he said. “As long as there are private prison beds in Oklahoma, they (elected officials) don’t have to face the brick wall.”

About a quarter of the state’s inmates are housed in private prisons that also take in other states’ offenders. They are owned by for-profit companies that are responsible to shareholders.

“Any time you go public and your commodity is a human being, what else do you call it but slavery,” he said.