Visit a prison to grasp re­forms

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY REP. BOBBY CLEVE­LAND Cleve­land, R-Slaugh­ter­ville, has rep­re­sented Dis­trict 20 in the Ok­la­homa House since 2013. He lost his re-elec­tion bid this year.

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

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