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Oklahoma prisons director says overcrowding crisis worsening

January 16, 2018

FILE - In this June 27, 2017, file photo, Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, listens during a Board of Corrections meeting in Oklahoma City. Allbaugh warned lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, that the state's crumbling prison system is overcrowded with inmates, the staff is overworked and underpaid and the problem is expected to worsen as more men and women are being sentenced to long stretches behind bars. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, file)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s prisons are crumbling, guards are overworked and underpaid, and the problem is expected to worsen in coming years as more men and women are sentenced to long stretches behind bars, the head of the state’s Department of Corrections warned lawmakers on Tuesday.

Director Joe Allbaugh delivered the blunt assessment just days after the release of federal statistics that show Oklahoma ranked second in the nation in overall incarceration rate with 673 people imprisoned per 100,000 residents in 2016, second only to Louisiana’s rate of 760 inmates.

“This is embarrassing,” Allbaugh told members of House and Senate budget panels as he showed them photographs of a hole in a water tank at one men’s prison in Stringtown plugged with a broom handle and caulk. “It’s unacceptable.”

Allbaugh is asking lawmakers for more than $1.5 billion in funding for the agency, an increase of more than $1 billion over its annual budget. That includes funding for two new prisons that will be needed to house a projected increase in the number of inmates over the next several years.

He also is seeking a 5 percent pay hike for DOC employees and stressed the difficulty the agency is having recruiting and retaining prison staff, particularly correctional officers.

“We’re paying them $12.78 an hour to put their lives on the line,” Allbaugh said after the meeting. “Quite frankly, I’ve had it. This is not the way Oklahoma takes care of business.”

Republican State Sen. David Holt, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee, said Allbaugh’s bleak evaluation of the state’s prison crisis underscores the need for legislators to consider ways to reduce sentencing and increase revenue.

“I think with or without criminal justice reform, you are grossly underfunded, and that cries out for tax reform,” said Holt, who was among a majority of Republicans who supported a broad tax increase on tobacco, motor fuel and energy production last session that fell short of the required votes needed to pass the House.

Oklahoma incarceration rate is being driven in part by tough sentencing requirements imposed for years by politicians who tout a tough-on-crime philosophy and a growing list of crimes for which inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Oklahoma lawmakers, who are set to begin the regular session Feb. 5, are expected to have a budget shortfall for the fourth consecutive year, making it unlikely there will be adequate funding to meet DOC’s request.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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