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February 23, 2014

At the helm of justice

NORMAN — In Robert C. Patton, Oklahoma is getting a new corrections director from Arizona who is more than willing to use private prisons as a means to deal with inmate overcrowding.

“I’m a (prison) bed manager. I’ll tell the policy makers I need beds, and if I can convince them that I need beds, then it’s their jobs on whether it’s public or private,” said Patton, whose first day as Oklahoma Corrections Department director began Tuesday.

Patton’s position on private prisons is far different than that of Justin Jones, the former director who resigned in October following clashes with elected officials who wanted to put more inmates in private facilities.

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections last month approved a measure that allows the state to seek proposals from private prison companies to provide an additional 350 to 2,000 medium-security beds for state inmates.

Although Patton said he supports private prisons, he wouldn’t approve the privatization of current state-run facilities.

Patton, 50, spent nearly all three decades of his correctional career in Arizona, which has relied increasingly on private prisons to ease overcrowding. As the Arizona corrections department’s division director, Patton was the No. 3 person in charge of an agency with a $1 billion annual budget; he had oversight of 10 state prison complexes and six private prisons.

“Nothing happens in the prisons without the division director of operations knowing about it. It’s a very high pressure job,” said Doug Nick, an Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman. “He’s one of the most genuine and hard-working persons you will ever find.”

Arizona’s prisons collectively house more than 41,000 inmates, with one-sixth, or nearly 6,800 inmates, in private prisons. Arizona’s newest private facility, which can house up to 1,000 prisoners, began taking inmates in January in the rural community of Eloy, about 65 miles southeast of Phoenix.

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