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Elusive reform


Kurt Hochenauer July 29th, 2010

What will it take to change the prevailing political mentality in Oklahoma when it comes to prison incarceration?

What will it take to change the prevailing political mentality in Oklahoma when it comes to prison incarceration?
In a recent media report, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones called the current prison situation a "crisis" because of the disparity between the high number of inmates and low number of corrections staff, which has never been greater. This is a result of recent budget cuts. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's prison population swells as inmates face visitation cuts this year.

It's a dangerous, volatile situation.

The state ranks first in the nation in its female incarceration rate on a per capita basis, a rate that's twice the national average. The male incarceration rate has ranked fourth nationally in recent years. Many state leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, seem to agree there's a problem " the damage to the state's image because of the high female incarceration rate alone is incalculable " but major reform is elusive.  

Correction officials, district attorneys, judges, legislators, civic leaders and prison reform advocates can't seem to come together to reduce the state's obscenely high incarceration rates and find ways to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders outside prisons and jails.

There are good ideas out there from well-intentioned leaders, and there have been some tentative steps and excellent proposals, such as diversionary programs and attempts to remove the governor from the pardon and parole process except for heinous crimes. But what the state needs is a comprehensive reform effort that depoliticizes the issue and allows common sense to prevail.

Can it happen?

"Unfortunately, it will take something drastic happening "¦ a riot or something like that," said Lynn Powell, leader of the Oklahoma chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) and someone who has been involved in prison reform efforts for 16 years.

Powell's view is born of experience. In her 16 years as a prison reform advocate, she has seen proposals like removing the governor from the pardon and parole process never make it into law.

"I think politics have a lot to do with it. "¦ No politician wants to be seen as soft on crime," she said.
As far as the high female incarceration rate goes, Powell said, "I don't think the women (here) are meaner. Most of the women are in there because they're poor."

Powell's organization advocates for alternative and community sentencing that keeps people out of prison. CURE's mission statement argues that "prisons (should be) used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have all of the resources they need to turn their lives around."

 
But that's a hard sell in Oklahoma. The state continues to lock up nonviolent offenders, many on simple drug possession charges. It costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually, and it sometimes turns young inmates into hardened criminals, which ends up costing more money. It's a vicious, nonsensical system.

Meanwhile, budget cuts have forced correction officials to cut visitation opportunities for inmates. They have no choice, Powell said, because of the number of staff members it requires to monitor visits. But that could lead to despair inside prisons, spurring violence.

Because of inaction "legislators are putting lives in danger on the inside " the staff and some of the inmates," Powell said.

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.

 
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