Patrick B. McGuigan
Oklahoma City – New Oklahoma protocols and procedures for capital punishment are “in the final stages to be presented to the Attorney General’s office” soon — but will then “have to go through the court system,” said Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Allbaugh’s comments came during a meeting last week with members and guests of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP).
In addition to court arguments over any new protocols, the state faces a challenge (as is the case all over the nation) procuring the drugs needed for lethal injections.
In October 2015, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office stated it would not seek to set any execution dates until 150 days after the adoption of new execution protocols following a grand jury investigation into the problems with previous executions.
Allbaugh observed, “I can tell you there are other ways to carry out what’s in the statute beyond the drug protocol” including firing squad or the electric chair. He said firing squad was “the most efficient” of the alternatives, but hinted either alternative was unlikely.
Allbaugh pointed out the Legislature is considering a measure to let the Corrections Department pick an alternative execution method, but said, “I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. Society needs to be either all-in this deal or not…one way or the other.”
In response to a question from this reporter – focused on the justice of capital punishment after several dozen people on death rows across America have been exonerated — Allbaugh declined to engage directly on the issue, reflecting, “I’m not here to talk pro or con against the death penalty. I’m the hired gun. My name is Paladin.”
As to a follow-up question about the high costs of capital punishment litigation, Allbaugh observed, “The AG [attorney general’s] office pays for the appeals.”
Concerning the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/oklahoma-bipartisan-death-penalty-review-commission-formed-supported), under the leadership of former Governor Brad Henry (a report the group is anticipating possibly this month), Allbaugh said he met with the group once: “I’m anxious to see what it says.” He referred to the Constitution Project – based in Washington, D.C. and sponsors of the Commission — as a “reputable outfit,” but said he did not know what the findings will be.
Former state Sen. Connie Johnson, chair of OK-CADP, raised concerns about the infamous botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Allbaugh, an Oklahoman who worked in Texas and in Washington, D.C. for many years before returning home and taking the interim post, pointed out he had been away from his home state for 23 years.
“Based on what I know now,” he agrees a “stay or moratorium on executions until it was thought through” was wise. He said that if the state is going to have a death penalty process, it should “as humane and safe and … efficient as possible.”
He continued, “I’m just the person in charge of the statutory responsibility to carry it out. I have no desire to have any misstep on my watch.” Like many others – both foes of executions and supporters – he is hesitant about replacing use of lethal injections with gas (editor’s note: nitrogen hypoxia).
Replying on that point to Rev. Don Heath, the OK-CADP vice chair, Allbaugh said candidly he was “not for it. I’m not going to be the first guinea pig in the state to try that.”
Regarding death row visits, Allbaugh heard contentions that some inmates have been denied visitors: “Anybody can meet. Unless you’re a class one – worst offender.” He promised to respond to visitation concerns raised by one of the Coalition members.
Members of the group also raised issues about various protocols such as “lights on 24 hours a day before executions,” and allowing a representative of the death row inmate to be a witness inside the death chamber during executions.
Allbaugh spoke at the OK-CADP monthly board meeting, held the evening of Tuesday, February 7, at First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City, on a wide range of issues.
Concerning the agency where he remains as interim director, Allbaugh was forthcoming. Conditions throughout the stressed system are “severely overcrowded.”
He reported the system has 28,000 incarcerated persons, and only 1734 corrections officers, reflecting it “takes a lot of guts to be a corrections officer,” armed only with self-defense training.
Allbaugh began his work on January 8, 2016, and says the system is “uglier than anyone knows.”
As for the status of those who have already served time in lock-ups, there are “33,000 on the outside with 254 probation officers.” For that system, the ideal ratio “is 1 to 60 -75 max.”
Looking to the future, Allbaugh believes things look grim for the Corrections system – unless reforms are made. He pointed to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust that projects the Oklahoma’s prison “population, system-wide, will increase 25 percent over the next 10 years.”
He believes reforms along the lines of those that have taken place in Texas could, over many years, save money, noting the Lone Star State has actually begun to close facilities. He wants to shift the Oklahoma operations away from “a warehouse system,” but lamented that due to overcrowding, “we have filled all the programming spaces. I’m trying to do my best to change that. I’m trying to do a 180.”
Allbaugh contends that “there’s very little appetite for criminal justice reform at the Legislature that I can see.”
He commended Gov. Mary Fallin’s push for new reforms, but believes it will take more than one good legislative session: “This is a multiyear commitment for a lot of people.”
Deeming the system understaffed, he observed, “If it weren’t for the faith based programs we would be on our heels.” Concerning the workforce and the inmates, Allbaugh noted that “43 percent of the incarcerated population is in excess of 50 years of age.” Due to understaffing, “the gangs get control. We pay $12.78 an hour. Your life is on the line every day for $12.78.”
The system provides inmates with two hot meals a day, and a cold plate – feeding every one for $2.62 a day, per person: “It was $2.52 and 6 months ago I added a dime. We grow a lot of our own food,” he added.
The encounter with OK-CADP members lasted around 30 minutes. Both Allbaugh and the attendees remained respectful and focused on issues throughout the meeting.
Disclosure: McGuigan, a journalist for four decades, is also a member of OK-CADP.