OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Gov. Brad Henry says policy makers must meet head-on the overcrowding crisis in prisons and end a long cycle of underfunding the Department of Corrections.
In an interview, Henry said a mix of programs is needed, including more drug and alcohol treatment and expansion of drug courts, while beefing up maximum-security beds at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to handle dangerous criminals.
“I think that needs to be done,” he said of expanding capacity at the OSP. “As far as additional prisons, I'm not quite there yet.”
He said that for over a decade the prison system has been shortchanged in the budget process, requiring emergency appropriations every year.
“I do believe that each Legislature is well intended, in that they all believe that public safety is job No. 1,” Henry said. “But when it comes down to the end of the session and we finalize our budget, for one reason or another, other priorities seem to be higher than corrections.
“At some point, we have to address head-on our problems in corrections. It is going to take more dollars or a new attitude on how we lock people up, or maybe a combination of the two.”
In his executive budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, Henry included a $170 million bond proposal for a 750-bed expansion and other improvements at the OSP.
Corrections Director Justin Jones wants to expand the McAlester prison and build a new medium security prison to house 2,400 inmates.
The Legislature increased the DOC budget this year to $483 million, but it was not enough to carry the agency through the 12 months of the fiscal year that started July 1. Jones said the agency will need supplemental funding when lawmakers reconvene in February.
The Legislature did not support the proposed OSP expansion as Senate Republicans rebelled against increasing the state's bonded indebtedness.
“I'm certainly open-minded to any funding mechanism,” Henry said. “I just wish the those who oppose bonds would offer an alternative so we can have prison beds for those prisoners who need to be locked up.”
Jones recently said inmate overcrowding had hit 98 percent capacity and is probably at the most critical point in three decades because of a lack of options to deal with the problem. He said his only alternative soon will be to back up state inmates in county jails.
Henry said it was premature to consider a special session of the Legislature on the issue, while praising the timing of an Associated Press series of articles on overcrowding and prison problems.
“If we don't do something, we will hit that brick wall,” he said.
Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, has opposed prison expansion, while suggesting more utilization of private prisons.
Henry said he agreed with Jones that the state should not become too dependent on private prisons.
“I don't think we will ever get to the point _ certainly not during my tenure _ where private prisons house the vast majority of our prison population. I do think that under that scenario, you could potentially become hostage to private prisons.
“We want to work with them. We want to partner with them. But we don't want to be in a position where they can say you have to pay us x-amount of money or we're going to turn all of our prisoners back over to your.”
House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, is counting on an outside performance audit he proposed for some answers.
“I think until the outside consultants that are conducting a performance review have completed their work, the speaker is taking a wait-and-see attitude and is open to all options being on the table,” House spokesman Damon Gardenhire said of Cargill's position on prison expansion.