By Verna Wood
New Mexico, “land of enchantment”. Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment? In Oklahoma the most appropriate descriptive phrase for our state is not quite as lovely. How about “Oklahoma, land of incarceration”? When ESPN wanted to video a sport that represented each state recently they selected prison rodeo for Oklahoma. Only after protest from offended citizens did they change their plan and choose another sport. Personally this reporter feels that if the shoe fits, wear it. If we are determined to lock up a large percentage of our population, perhaps a prison event is the most appropriate sport to represent our state.
Approximately 20,000 people are convicted of felonies each year in Oklahoma. We have approximately 26,000 inmates and the prison population is estimated to grow at 2 percent a year for the next decade according to Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones. In addition to those who are actually incarcerated Oklahoma also has 27,713 people on probation and 3745 on parole. This brings the total to 56,442 people who are under DOC supervision. These figures were current as of April 30, 2007 and came from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections website which can be accessed at www.doc.state.ok.us.
Statistics show that the United States has the most inmates, and the highest incarceration rate, of any nation in the world. We incarcerate more people than the Russian Federation, South Africa, Mexico, Iran, India, Australia, Brazil, and Canada combined. According to a report published by the Public Safety Performance Project 1 in every 42 U.S. residents is in prison or jail or on probation or parole. In Oklahoma that number is almost twice as high at 1 in 24. And the number doubles yet again when you include those who have been under correctional supervision in the past. One in every 12 people in Oklahoma has been in or currently is in prison or jail or on probation or parole!
This overcrowding problem is entirely due to Oklahoma’s “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude. Our prisons contain hundreds of people, especially lifers and long-termers who have genuinely changed their lives and are in no way a threat to society. To allow humans who have reformed and are no longer a threat to languish and die in prison is a terribly flawed public policy. Is it just to keep a person locked in a cage when this is no longer necessary for public safety? How much pain, suffering, and punishment do we require? How much are we willing to spend in human and financial terms to carry out vengeance?
Every year the legislature has to come up with extra funds to meet the needs of the Department of Corrections. Why does Oklahoma have such a gigantic expense in this area? For one thing we don’t truly believe in that one word, “corrections”. The state has labeled our prison system, “the department of corrections” yet the state apparently does not believe that an inmate’s behavior can actually be corrected. If it did it would be more willing to give those with a long term of incarceration and a good record of conduct a second chance through parole. Very rarely is an inmate with a life sentence or a large number of years to serve granted a parole regardless of his record or accomplishments while in prison.
Should we ignore the fact that persons released from prison after long terms rarely commit crimes? Only one percent of persons aged 50 and older return to prison after release. The great success of Canada’s Life Line program that recruits successful lifers to help other lifers throughout their sentences and upon their release is proof that many of these people can function well on the outside and be productive members of society.
Because of our vindictive no-tolerance policies we have hundreds of elderly inmates, inmates in wheel chairs, inmates who are dying with cancer and other terminal conditions. What danger can these people possibly be? Prison is a difficult and demoralizing atmosphere for any human being. For the sick and elderly it is arguably a human rights violation. Our legislators, our governor, and our parole board need to be encouraged to look at these people individually, not at who they were 20 or 30 years ago but who they are now. If they have changed their lives give them a second chance. Our prisons should be reserved for those for whom there is no safe alternative, certainly not for the sick and the elderly.
Terri White, Commissioner of the Dept. of Mental Health & Substance Abuse says that 1/3 of Oklahoma inmates have severe Mental Illness and 60% are there for non violent offences. She believes that these people should not be in prison but that would take changes in the laws. So far our legislature has not been willing to make any major changes for fear of being viewed as being “soft on crime”.
Besides locking up more people each year another reason Oklahoma’s prison population continues to grow is because fewer inmates are being released on parole. Prison releases through parole/commutation have dropped for the third straight year from 2428 in 2003 to 846 in 2006, a 71% drop. Corrections officials expect an 18 percent increase in the number of inmates by 2016. Although sentences on average are lower by one year, inmates are having to serve longer. “I would say the largest cause of prison growth now does not have to do with the intake in prisons, it has to do with fewer releases from prisons,” said K.C. Moon, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center.
Oklahoma prisons are now nearing 100% capacity and there is nowhere to put all the new prisoners who are being sentenced daily. Department of Corrections Director Jones recently indicated that DOC will have to stop accepting inmates around the middle of May. “I’m not aware that it’s ever been done before,” Jones said. “I certainly don’t see any other options.” But Jones said state inmates are staying behind bars longer than they used to because they are receiving longer sentences. Legislation passed within the last decade requires inmates convicted of 19 different “deadly sin” crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. The number of inmates required to serve the 85 percent has grown from 53 in 2000 to 3600 in 2007.
Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones said his agency has asked the Pardon and Parole Board to consider a special commutation docket for nonviolent offenders who will be turned over to federal immigration authorities upon their release. That would include about 160 offenders, he said. Neville Massie with DOC recently contacted OKCure (Oklahoma Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) stating that there will be no early releases. He said there are only two ways an inmate can be released. They can discharge their sentence or they can be granted a parole with the Governor signing off on it.
State prison officials are seeking a 1,500-bed expansion at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and a new 2,400-bed prison. Both would be paid for with a 25-year, $380 million bond issue. The corrections budget for the fiscal year that will end June 30 was 456 million dollars and for 2008 it is 477.5 million, an increase of $21.5 million. As our prisons gray the expense of medical care has also skyrocketed. Nationally it costs an average of $70,000 a year to house an inmate over 60 years old, almost three times the average for prisoners overall according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much more financial burden are taxpayers willing to bear before they refuse to pay more?
Rep. Rex Duncan, a Republican from Sand Springs, has expressed his concern that “we’re now going on 15 years where the DOC has expended its appropriation prior to the end of the fiscal year.” He questioned why the Department of Corrections doesn’t stretch its appropriations dollars over 12 months, like other agencies. “I don’t think simply throwing more money at a problem is a solution.”
According to statistics it costs $1 million to house an inmate for 30 years. Wouldn’t it be wiser to spend more money for rehabilitation programs and work to help that inmate change his/her life and become a productive taxpayer rather than a drain on our system? It may be public opinion that when rehabilitation occurs the inmate will be placed on parole and given a second chance. Wrong! Most of the time the parole interview is a mere formality with very little hope for the inmate of actually being released. It has not always been so in Oklahoma but harsher policies have caused it to become more and more this way. Once a person is sent to prison in Oklahoma for a “violent” crime they are there for a very long time – regardless of guilt or circumstances. We have many good people in our prisons who would much rather be a part of the solution than a part of the problem but we refuse to allow them that chance. It’s not stiffer prison sentences that lower crime, it is crime awareness and prevention in our neighborhoods. One of every 11 prisoners in the U.S. is serving a life sentence. Can’t you think of a better way to spend a million dollars?
Rehabilitation and low recidivism rates are very low priorities in Oklahoma right now. Years ago our prison system was about rehabilitation but that is no longer the case. We are dealing in human flesh and profiting at the expense of helpless individuals – many of whom are actually innocent. Innocence or guilt are of little concern. Making money for private individuals, private industry, or the state are very high priority – everything in corrections is about money. We claim to be a spiritual nation yet we care nothing for the individual. We know very little about forgiveness, mercy, or helping those in need. We have been fed a bill of goods from prosecutors and judges that has scared us into frantically locking up as many people as we possibly can and then giving them little or no training or tools that would help them be successful upon release. That fuels the revolving door of recidivism whereby we can self-righteously proclaim that we knew those inmates were bad people anyway, all the while raking in big bucks to fill our coffers. And yet we expect a merciful God to forgive us of OUR sins. God help us!
We have hundreds of inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. But what does that little phrase “possibility of parole” really mean? It is only something that looks good on paper. It is something used to convince the public that if these people act right they will be released and given another chance at life. There are inmates who have been locked up for 30-40 years or more who have not had one write-up for misconduct in over 20 years and they are still turned down for parole every time! If they are approved by the parole board they are turned down by the governor. These men have families who love them very much, a home to go to, job opportunities that have been located by their families. They are no problem in prison. Statistics prove that violence is a crime of young people, not the middle-aged and elderly. Why then are we not willing to give these people who have changed their lives for the better and done everything they can possibly do to better themselves a chance to be productive citizens again? Most people in prison will eventually be released. Wouldn’t you rather they were prepared to do good things with their life rather than releasing an angry, bitter person who has been neglected and treated cruelly while in prison?
A book of essays written by lifers/long-termers entitled, Lockdown Prison Heart provides some insight into the thoughts of those who have been locked down for a very long time. “I am what the world says I cannot be, a rehabilitated man.” “Over and over I am shown my good conduct is meaningless but I haven’t run out of faith.” “These years of wrongful incarceration were turned into something good, it taught me what I can do to be better, to learn to forgive and love as Christ did.” “As long as there is breath, no one is beyond salvation. No matter the denial, the deprivation, or the circumstances, the will to better yourself is the sword that slashes the odds.”
In any society there will be crime and it logically stands to reason that punishment must follow in order to protect everyone in that society. But the citizens of Oklahoma need to take a stand and put “justice” back into our justice system. When a crime is committed let’s make a real effort to convict and lock up the person who actually committed the crime; not just anyone who will fill a cell and make the system look good. Then let’s follow through with the individual in prison and help him or her to better themselves and prepare for life on the outside. And when they have accomplished the goals set before them and have shown by their record that they are responsible and productive let’s give them a second chance – an opportunity to go out into the world and live again.
Sources: The Real Cost of Prisons Weblog; Oklahoma Department of Corrections web site; PEW Charitable Trusts, Public Safety Performance Project report titled ‘Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007- 2011.’; Tulsa World; OK CURE; Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center; The Aging of the Oklahoma Prison Population