Private prison corporations have been long-time bedfellows with state politicians across the country. The companies’ grip appears especially tight on Oklahoma politicians as they have shelled out over $400,000 on political contributions over the last decade. Now, the Oklahoma governor’s staff is slowing the law’s implementation.
Oklahoma currently holds some of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the country, having the country’s highest female incarceration rate and the fourth highest male incarceration rate. From 2000 to 2010, Oklahoma’s prison population growth outpaced the state’s population growth. And Oklahoma is running short on money and resources to properly house inmates and run its prisons.
Last year, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) in an effort to reduce the state’s ever-increasing incarceration rates. The reform would avoid jail time for non-violent offenders and, instead, utilize “proven treatment and intervention strategies.” Private prison corporations wanted to cut themselves in on the law and increase their profits by having use of their halfway houses written into the law’s provisions.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and other state officials initially supported the law, but perceived support has tapered since the governor’s office actively undermined the JRI’s implementation committee’s efforts. The governor’s office also rejected federal funds intended to get the JRI off of the ground.
Recently surfaced emails from within Fallin’s staff illustrate a collective concern over the JRI as they believed it made the administration appear “soft on crime.” The state of Oklahoma has a reputation for being the exact opposite. “In order to get elected in Oklahoma, you have to be quote-on-quote ‘tough on crime,’” said reform advocate and former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele.
Whenever the law passed with Fallin’s support, other conservatives met her with opposition. Her biggest fear for this year is inter-party opposition, and that fear may be coming to pass. Randy Brogdon, an Oklahoma tea partier, announced that he would run for governor against Fallin in the GOP primary this year as Fallin up for re-election.
With a GOP primary on Fallin’s heels and the JRI appearing as a blemish on her administration, the prison reform’s implementation has been tentative at best. Steele believes that because the JRI is a potential threat to Fallin’s political position, her administration lightened up its support. Reform supporters also believe that Steele was politically maneuvered out of a leadership role with an implementation oversight group.
Oklahoma’s prison reform is at odds with contractual agreements between the private prison’s and the state. Provisions of the contract illustrate that the state must maintain an agreed upon “bed rate” in the private prisons or else the state must pay a monetary penalty. This penalty is naturally paid for out of the state budget which burdens its taxpayers.
Oklahoma’s prison occupancy quota is among the highest in the nation. The state has three contracts with private prisons that must maintain a 98 percent occupancy at all times. This agreement is a huge profit center for the prison corporations, and they contribute money to candidates who will bolster “tough on crime” laws to ensure maximum occupancy.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The Geo Group, Inc., and Avalon Correctional Services Inc. are the main prison contributors to Oklahoma politicians. Contributions have already surpassed $50,000 for 2014 re-election campaigns and have funded many things from political initiatives to other campaigns and the Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball. Fallin is the top active recipient of contributions, receiving $38,950 from private prisons.