Removing Barriers to Pretrial Appearance

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Lessons Learned from Tulsa County, Oklahoma, and Hennepin County, Minnesota, by Urban Institute, June, 2021.
“Most respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Court Ride [in Hennepin Cty, Minn.] had reduced barriers to court appearance (87.51%) and FTA rates for their clients (78.13%), and that it had reduced the number of their clients in custody (64.51%).�

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Oklahoma Inches Closer to Eliminating Private Prisons

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Change is coming to a southeast Oklahoma private prison plagued with violence and staffing shortages, but advocates for corrections staff and prisoners say further efforts are needed to improve conditions. 

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections will take control of the Davis Correctional Facility, a medium-to-maximum security prison in Holdenville, on Oct. 1. CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based private corrections company, has owned and operated the prison since it opened in 1996. The state pays CoreCivic $55 per day for medium-security prisoners and $68 per day for prisoners in maximum-security and behavior-modification units. 

Corrections officers, medical personnel and other Davis staff will retain their salaries and start receiving state benefits, corrections department spokesperson Kay Thompson said. The Lawton Correctional Facility, owned and operated by The GEO Group, will remain as the state’s only private prison after the changeover. 

“By taking over operations at DCF, we can more efficiently and effectively care for the men incarcerated there,” Department of Corrections Director Stephen Harpe said in a written statement. “We are changing lives in our facilities daily and want to continue to offer the same high standard of professionalism and respect to all Oklahoma inmates.”

Assaults against prisoners and staff inside Davis, which houses hundreds of high-risk offenders who are gang-affiliated or have been convicted of violent offenses, have spiked in recent years. 

On July 31, 2022, Davis prisoner Gregory Thompson fatally stabbed 61-year-old corrections officer Alan Jay Hershberger. An Oklahoma Watch investigation published weeks after Hershberger’s death found that stabbings at the facility more than tripled from 2021 to 2022. 

In late February, a prisoner fatally attacked another man housed at the facility with a homemade weapon. Another stabbing in mid-August prompted a lockdown and hospitalization of a prisoner.  

Asked if the state takeover of Davis is related to the uptick in violence, Thompson said CoreCivic has been a good partner over the years but the agency believes it has the resources to better run and manage the facility. She said the corrections department has plans to establish new programs, possibly for job training or mental health, after an evaluation period. 

“Everything has a season, and it’s time to move on from private facilities,” Thompson said. 

Faced with a soaring prison population in the mid-1990s, Oklahoma officials turned to private companies to relieve overcrowding in state facilities. By early 2018, more than a third of the state’s male prison population was housed in a for-profit facility. 

Criminal justice reform advocates have long pressed state leaders to cut ties with private prisons, raising concerns about conditions inside the facilities and the profit motive of the companies who run them. A Department of Justice investigation into federal private prisons released in 2016 found that the facilities tended to be more violent, less secure and not as effective in reforming prisoners as government-run facilities. 

John Carl, a criminology professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies the U.S. prison system, told Oklahoma Watch in 2020 that private prisons tend to restrict prisoner movement and offer fewer programs than state or federally-run facilities. 

“The easiest thing to do when managing a prison is to just keep it locked down all the time,” Carl said. “But eventually these people get out and they’re hot and they get into fights.”

Criminal justice reforms, most notably the voter-approved enactment of State Question 780 that reclassified several drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, have helped Oklahoma lower its prison population and reduce its reliance on private facilities. The state vacated the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing in September 2020, citing decreased need for medium-security prison beds.

Emily Shelton, founder of the Oklahoma prisoner advocacy group Hooked on Justice, said the men housed at Davis and their loved ones should benefit from cheaper state rates for commissary items and phone calls. She said the transition also marks a win for justice reform advocates who have rallied against the privatization of prisons and jails for decades. 

But implementing a culture change could prove difficult, said Shelton, whose son was previously incarcerated at Davis. 

“At the end of the day, we still have the gang members in the prison,” she said. “All these deaths and overdoses, how drugs are coming in, none of that is going to change under DOC.” 

Bobby Cleveland, a former state lawmaker and executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, said he’s concerned an expedited transition at Davis could further stress a prison system struggling to recruit and retain corrections officers.

Department of Corrections budget documents show the agency employed 1,277 state correctional officers as of April 30, down from 1,501 in March 2021. The Davis Correctional Facility operated at about 70% of its promised staffing level throughout 2021, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. 

“Right now we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Cleveland said. “We take four officers out of one prison and send them to another one for a week or two to try and solve that. Well, that prison is now down. It’s a train wreck.” 

State Rep. Justin Humphrey, a Republican from Lane who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said he doesn’t believe the state has received good service from private corrections companies and supports the effort to phase out for-profit prisons. But the former probation officer said he’s concerned corrections officials aren’t giving themselves enough time to evaluate the prison’s operations and condition and ensure a smooth transition. 

He cited the recent state takeover of the Great Plains Correctional Facility, a former federal private prison that began housing Oklahoma prisoners in mid-May, as a cautionary tale. 

“They had a lot of physical problems with the facility with things like doors and electric and phones,” Humphrey said. “When you move that quick, you also can have issues with food service and staffing. There are lots of issues we don’t have worked out of that yet, so I have concerns about jumping onto another facility.” 

In a written statement, the Department of Corrections said operations at Davis will remain consistent with current CoreCivic practices immediately after the takeover. 

Thompson, the corrections department spokesperson, said the agency is weighing a similar takeover of the Lawton Correctional Facility. Per the agreement inked between the agency and the GEO Group in June, the state could opt to purchase the 2,700-bed facility outright or terminate the contract altogether with at least 180 days’ notice.The Lawton prison, which houses about 12% of Oklahoma’s prison population, has its own violent history. On Aug. 16, a prisoner was airlifted to a hospital after a fight broke out. Four prisoners were taken to the hospital in mid-May after a large-scale fight broke out, local news station KSWO reported.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.



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Montana legislators call for Census Bureau action

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New national op-ed shows the growing bipartisan calls for the Census Bureau to finally fix how it counts incarcerated people.


by Aleks Kajstura,

August 30, 2023

The need to end prison gerrymandering is “obvious to anyone who looks at the facts.” That’s the conclusion of a bipartisan duo of Montana lawmakers, Sen. Shane Morigeau and Sen. Jason Small, in an op-ed published this week in The Hill.

Thanks to a bill sponsored by Morigeau and supported by Small, Montana is among the growing list of states that have ended the practice of prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau incorrectly counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. When states use this flawed Census data to draw new legislative districts, they inadvertently give residents of districts with prisons greater political clout than all other state residents. Montana’s actions limited that injustice in the state.

In the piece, the lawmakers explain the unique ways prison gerrymandering harms residents, particularly communities of color, indigenous people, and low-income individuals:

This power shift has dramatic policy impacts. A community with a high incarceration rate is more likely to support policies that address mass incarceration’s root causes — poverty, substance use and untreated mental health issues. But prison gerrymandering dilutes the voices of these communities, weakening their influence on lawmakers. Ending prison gerrymandering will ensure these communities have an equal voice in policymaking.

In Montana, there was wide bipartisan agreement that the Census Bureau gets it wrong when it comes to counting incarcerated people, which is why there was such a commitment to addressing the issue. The state’s independent redistricting commission was the first to tackle the problem for the 2020 redistricting cycle. Because of the tight timeframe and specialized knowledge needed, it had to hire — at taxpayer expense — outside experts to fix the census data to count incarcerated people at their true homes. And the state’s legislature followed suit, making the practice permanent, even if the Bureau fails to fix the problem once again.

The Senators highlighted the broad support for this change, “Despite [these challenges], the bipartisan commission got it done. Our legislature — controlled by a Republican supermajority — overwhelmingly voted with Democrats to make this change permanent, and our Republican governor signed it into law. ”

Morigeau and Small also call out the Census Bureau for selectively applying its residence rule to harm some of the country’s most disadvantaged people:

As its rationale for counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the bureau cites its “usual residence rule,” which says they count people where they eat and sleep on most days. This sounds reasonable until you realize the bureau treats incarcerated people differently than others in similar situations. For example, it counts students at boarding schools at their home addresses, but children in juvenile correctional facilities are counted where they are detained, even though two-thirds of them will be there for less than six months.

Finally, the lawmakers ask the inescapable question: “With so many places clamoring for this change and more likely to join their ranks by 2030, why does the Census Bureau still force state and local governments to jump through hoops and spend money to fix a problem it created?” And they exhort the Bureau to fix the problem, stating that ” …ending prison gerrymandering should be near the top of its list of changes” for the 2030 census.

This op-ed is the latest evidence of the growing, bipartisan desire for the Census Bureau to fix how it counts incarcerated people. The question remains: will the Bureau listen?

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Systemic Failures:

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Conditions in California State Prisons During the Covid-19 Pandemic, by Prison Accountability Project at UCLA School of Law, June, 2023.
“According to respondents, the [California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation] ignored over 80 percent of incarcerated people’s requests for medical care and failed to protect people with pre-existing conditions from COVID-19.â€�

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