Watch-Out, Two: Allbaugh says state prison crisis bears “uncanny” resemblance to what Texas faced

OKLAHOMA CITY – Joe Allbaugh, interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, says Oklahoma’s prison overcrowding issues bear an “uncanny” resemblance and many parallels to the funding and management crisis that was intensifying in the Lone Star State 22 years ago.

In 1995 and 1997, while Allbaugh worked in government, Texas took initial steps toward changing incentives and management in its prisons. In 2006, under then-Gov. Rick Perry, however, broad reforms passed to divert non-violent offenders and incoming prisoners with substance abuse problems toward alternative programs.

On January 8, Allbaugh took control of the state Corrections Department, in wake of a series of high-level resignations. Both the agency director and warden of the state penitentiary at McAlester departed late last year.

A grand jury is investigating the process undertaken in two of the state’s executions and one near-execution (the latter in the case of Richard Glossip, which has garnered worldwide scrutiny). Issues investigated have included the use or near-use of the wrong medicines, in violation of Oklahoma’s death penalty protocols.

While the broken capital punishment process directly sparked Allbaugh’s assent to the interim job, he was brought back to his home state to address the state’s position at or near the top in all categories of incarceration, without an apparent positive impact on underlying crime rates.

State prisons are now at 122 percent of capacity. Since taking the job, Allbaugh has visited “around one-half” of the facilities under his management, he told a packed “Watch-Out” session held Tuesday evening (April 12) at Kamp’s 1910 Cafe in the capital city.

He has gained support from the governing Board of Corrections to look at the troubled agency and its facilities from top to bottom, including aging buildings where “deferred maintenance” has evolved into non-maintenance.

Answering questions from the audience and from moderator David Fritze, Executive Editor for Oklahoma Watch, Allbaugh said he wants solutions. That might include leasing private prison facilities in Watonga and Sayre, with the goal to close some of the oldest state facilities and concentrate prisoners into fewer sites, under state government control and management.

While not a fan of private prisons, he said, Allbaugh believes those facilities might play a role in bridging the state away from its current problems.

On a related topic, he said the state has 1,800 correctional officers, and needs 500 to 600 more. Describing himself as pro-death penalty and “tough on crime,” Allbaugh nonetheless repeatedly expressed support for broad, even sweeping, reforms. As he has in previous public appearances, Allbaugh at one held aloft a thick file of papers. The files contained, he said, paperwork for a person or persons in the Oklahoma prison system. Among other costs envisioned, Allbaugh said the state needs to invest in modern technology to make tracking of people in the system more transparent and efficient.

Frequently expressing a desire to improve conditions both for guards and prisoners, Allbaugh nonetheless said he was not among those who want to lower telephone costs for inmates. “I don’t think taxpayers should bear that expense,” he said.

At the Oklahoma Watch program, Allbaugh expressed gratitude to Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders for authorizing disbursements from the state’s emergency reserve, known as the Rainy Day Fund, including some $27 million for Corrections.

However, he said, in the midst of the current budget crunch that sum is still several million dollars short of what is needed to pay the bills for his agency.

Allbaugh said he hopes to lay the basis for “substantive and civil discussions” of corrections reforms that could be fashioned in the years ahead.

Although the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) was enacted with Gov. Fallin’s signature in 2012, anticipated reforms went largely unimplemented.

However, in her 2016 State of the State address, Fallin made a passionate case for changes in Corrections and criminal justice policies.

A cluster of measures she supports are headed toward enactment this year. Additionally, former House Speaker Kris Stelle and a broad, bi-partisan coalition are pressing for ballot initiatives to bolster the reform process.

In wake of a 72 percent drop in the price of oil and gas, state government revenues are several hundred million dollars below earlier projections for Fiscal Year 2016. Next year, the budget “hole” is expected to be at least $1.3 billion.

Although appropriated dollars in the budget process are $7 billion +/-, total state spending derived form all sources is around $24 billion. Only Corrections and Education have received supplemental appropriations in the current legislative session.