BY HARRY COATES
Former Gov. Frank Keating started a dangerous trend when he allowed Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ inmates to be transferred to private prisons. Today, this trend continues and is being encouraged by the governor and legislative leaders who pass laws continually increasing punishments and sentences, which ensures a growing inmate population.
This trend has allowed Oklahoma to become the top state for women incarceration and No. 4 for men. Our prisons are overflowing and understaffed.
Prison guards are grossly underpaid for their dangerous occupations to the point that they can hardly provide for their families, which leads to a high turnover rate and continued staffing problems.
It’s odd that state leaders and lawmakers won’t approve a raise for DOC employees but will pay more per prisoner to send them to a private prison.
I don’t blame DOC Director Justin Jones for resigning. He’s been fighting a losing battle for years.
I agree with him that the premise behind private prisons is disturbing. He’s not alone in his belief that it’s ethically and morally wrong to profit from incarceration.
Unfortunately, we’re in the minority, and current state leaders want to use these facilities even more.
Where is the incentive to help keep people out of prison or properly reintegrate them back into society so they don’t end up back behind bars?
The Legislature continues passing stricter laws causing more people to be locked up and to serve longer sentences. Therefore, it appears that lawmakers want our state-run prisons overflowing so they can send more people to private prisons – all at a high cost to taxpayers.
This isn’t surprising, however, given the generous financial contributions the private prison operators give to political campaigns. The Legislature has now even abandoned the recent efforts of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative working group that laid the foundation for legislation to improve the state’s criminal justice system.
It defies logic that we would choose to rely on the more expensive private prisons rather than passing legislation to help lower the population within our own corrections system.
For instance, addressing the strict and excessive sentences for nonviolent offenders most of which are drug addicts or alcoholics and need drug and alcohol counseling, not to be locked up the rest of their lives.
They have an illness that’s treatable but Oklahoma isn’t providing them much help because then legislative leaders would appear “weak” on crime.
Oklahoma’s policymakers need to get serious about corrections reform and address the issues that contribute to incarceration including high poverty, substance abuse and lack of education.
By addressing the social problems that lead to a life of crime and helping people before they get arrested, we could drastically lower Oklahoma’s incarceration rate.
We wouldn’t need private prisons in Oklahoma but, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in the near future.
– Harry Coates, a Seminole Republican, represents District 28 in the Oklahoma Senate