Oklahoma Aims to Take Over Private Prisons


Too many prisoners, not enough space to house them. 

Tough-on-crime policies enacted in the 1990s, most notably a 1997 law requiring certain offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentence before becoming eligible for release, caused Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to skyrocket and its prisons to reach capacity. 

Publicly traded companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (today known as CoreCivic) and The GEO Group offered state officials a solution: Pay us a daily per-prisoner rate and we’ll take care of building, operating and maintaining prisons that meet state standards. 

The idea resonated with former Gov. Frank Keating’s administration and the building spree was on. Five private prisons opened in the state between 1996 and 1998, mostly in rural communities. Three of them housed state prisoners while the remaining two took in inmates from states like Hawaii and California. 

Facing backlash over widespread violence inside the private facilities, Hawaii and California started bringing their prisoners back home in the late 2000s and early 2010s. However, the prisons housing in-state prisoners continued to thrive. As recently as five years ago, about 1 in 3 male Oklahoma prisoners were housed in a privately operated facility. 

Private prisons are a familiar foe of criminal justice reform advocates, who question the ethics of tying profits to incarceration and argue that they tend to offer subpar services compared to government-run facilities. In my latest story published late last week, I report that opponents of the facilities have reason to be optimistic: The state is set to take over operations of the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville early next month and is positioned to do the same with the Lawton Correctional Facility as soon as next year. 

State corrections department spokesperson Kay Thompson told me a declining prison population, thanks in large part to the voter-approved enactment of State Question 780, has made it more feasible for Oklahoma to wean off private prisons. She said CoreCivic, which has owned and operated Davis since 1996, has been a “good partner” but the state believes it can implement new programs and more efficiently run the facility. 

Other sources I spoke with, including a state lawmaker, corrections worker advocate and family members of prisoners, say they’re supportive of the state’s efforts to wean off private prisons but question the speed at which the takeover is happening. They told me this transition is especially sensitive at a place like Davis, which houses hundreds of gang-affiliated and violent prisoners and has faced a string of murders and violent incidents in recent months. 

While private prisons in Oklahoma and across the U.S. appear to be on the decline, justice reform advocates say there’s reason to be concerned about the privatization of medical care and telecommunications in many government-run facilities. The cost of phone calls and video conferences can add up quickly for prisoners and their families. 

What do you think of the state’s shift away from private prisons? Have a state government or criminal justice story idea you think Oklahoma Watch should pursue? Let me know at Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. 

What I’m Reading This Week

  • People With Mental Illness Are More Likely to Die in Jail. A New Oklahoma County Program Puts Them in Treatment Instead: In recent years, officials have recognized people with mental illness are often held in jails or prisons but don’t receive effective treatment there. While programs are expanding,  a workforce shortage, stigma around treatment and years of financial neglect keeps people across the state from reaching treatment. [The Frontier]
  • Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters Draws Political Heat, Fines for Recent Actions: Walters is on the hook for nearly $8,000 in fees related to 14 late campaign reports. While he’s far from the first official to rack up violations, the sheer number and his contesting of them is unusual. [Public Radio Tulsa]
  • Oklahoma to Continue Lethal Injections as Alabama Pursues Nitrogen Gas: Corrections Department Director Stephen Harper told Oklahoma Voice he’s watching closing as Alabama plans to execute a prisoner with nitrogen gas. State officials explored using nitrogen gas as an execution method in 2018 but abandoned the plan after they were unable to find a supplier [Oklahoma Voice]

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