Oklahoma's Corrections Crisis: We Have Been Here Before

Jul 17, 2013

The prison at McAlester burns during the 1973 riot.
Credit Oklahoman Collection Oklahoma Historical Society

Forty years ago this month, flames raced through the Oklahoma State Prison at McAlester. Inmates took guards hostage and demand change. David Hall was Oklahoma’s Governor back then. He remembers it well.

DAVID HALL: “They were asking for less people in the prison. They were asking for better food and better accommodations. But, all of those things were in process, under a federal court order we were administrating that had been started six months before. It just had not been all implemented. You must remember, a hot Oklahoma summer generates very big problems in those prisons anyway.”

The prison was overcrowded. In fact, it had twice as many inmates as it was built to hold.

Fast Forward now to 2013. The prisons are again overcrowded. So much so, that the Department of Corrections can’t, or won’t, pick up “State Ready” inmates from the Tulsa County Jail. Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz defines “State Ready” as any inmate, processed through the court, and ready to begin a prison term. He says the current situation is unfair to local jailers, tax payers and even the inmates.

STANLEY GLANZ: “ Say, I am a young person. I get sentenced to a program, such as a boot camp. Well, if I am sitting in a jail for six months, I can’t start that program and I can’t get out of prison until I complete that program.”

We asked the Department of Corrections to join our discussion. The agency declined in an email. The problems at the Correction Department are wide spread. One of the biggest is funding coming from the state. Sean Wallace is the head of the Oklahoma Correction Professionals Association. He feels there have been a lot of challenges at McAlester in the last 40-years and he doubts history is about to repeat itself. However, he does worry about smaller incidents blowing out of control because of the lack of adequate staffing.

SEAN WALLACE:  “If something goes wrong, we just don’t have the staff to respond. We have had three incidents. They were not riots, but were as close as you can get to one. We talked to an officer at Lexington, the reception center. He was involved in an incident out in the yard. I think there were 50-inmates involved and they had six officers that could respond. By the time they got everyone in there, my guy--- he is an honor guard, the best of the best--- was being beaten. He admitted that if those guys had wanted to kill him, they could have killed him.”

Wallace feels the state has the funding to correct the problem, just not the will power. He says lawmakers would rather look to private prisons, at a time when most other states are moving away from the model.

So, what is the Oklahoma attraction to private prisons?

Wallace thinks it is campaign funding. He feels lawmakers want to keep a “tough on crime” stance and continue to lock up record numbers of inmates. However, he doubts most Oklahomans feel the same.

SEAN WALLACE: “I don’t believe Oklahomans want the distinction of locking up more women than any other state. I think, Oklahomans want a fair policy.”

In the coming days, we will continue to explore the state’s corrections situation with other experts as we approach the prison riots 40th anniversary. Our thanks to the VoicesofOklahoma.com for production assistance.