Visit a prison to grasp reforms
There will be more than 40 new lawmakers sworn into the House of Representatives after the November elections. I want to encourage them each to get involved in what is going on in our state’s prison system. They will be tasked with appropriating funds to our Department of Corrections, but they can only learn how money is spent and how much is needed by visiting our state’s prisons for themselves.
I have visited a prison almost every Friday for the past six years; some I’ve visited multiple times. I’ve seen how many prisoners each corrections officer is asked to guard and for very low pay. Many COs are asked to work double shifts due to the inability of the department to hire enough officers. I’ve seen their working conditions in our aging prison facilities. I’ve seen the stresses of overcrowded prisons on inmates, too — prisoners sleeping in open day rooms where the lights are never turned off, cell blocks where the locks don’t work, etc.
I’ve seen the programs offered to our prisoners, and many times the lack of programming because of a lack of funding or space. I’ve seen people who would be better served by having their addictions, mental illness or childhood traumas treated in the community rather than expecting them to get better as a result of their incarceration. We need to fund additional treatment programs that treat people where it is most effective — in the community.
We’ve got to find a way to slow the flow of men and women to our prison system. Efforts have started in the Legislature to address our sentencing laws, to help people get out of the system earlier or to divert people to drug courts or other alternatives instead of prison. Still, Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than anyplace in the world.
This fiscal year, the Legislature appropriated more than $517 million to the Department of Corrections, a 7 percent increase over FY 2018. We also approved the use of $116.5 million in bonds to fund long-overdue repairs to our dilapidated prisons. The system houses more than 27,000 prisoners, and our state facilities are at 113 percent of capacity. Our corrections officers make about $13 an hour, and yet we ask them to do a very stressful, tough job where their lives are in danger.
I am passionate about our corrections officers being paid a better wage. Because of low pay, we have drastic shortfalls in the number of correction officers to man our state prisons — about 33 percent of positions are vacant agency wide. The DOC director has pointed out that nothing poses a greater risk to the public and the staff than this critical staffing shortage.
Through the years I invited fellow legislators several times to join me on my prison visits, but only a few went a couple of times. We need more members interested in our prisons and budget, more members interested in programs that help felons become taxpaying citizens. The state can do better than it has in the past.
Rep. Bobby Cleveland