OKLAHOMA CITY — The head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections had a message for lawmakers on Tuesday: The state needs two new prisons to handle its still-problematic prisoner population, and the facilities it does have need millions in repairs.
The price tag for all that, DOC Director Joe Allbaugh reported: $1.5 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, an increase of slightly more than $1 billion from last year.
Allbaugh made his comments to a joint legislative panel as part of ongoing budget hearings at the Capitol. He recounted problems at the agency such as crumbling facilities, inadequate programs, high staff turnover due to low pay and a soaring prison population.
When asked after the meeting about seeking such a big increase at a time when the state is dealing with large budget holes, Allbaugh said funding is the responsibility of elected officials.
“I am asking for what the agency needs,” he said. “It is not up to me to figure out how to fund government.”
Allbaugh said he has been realistic about the state of the Department of Corrections, “which is less than poor.”
He said Oklahoma’s incarceration rate ranks second in the nation. The prison system is operating at 112 percent of capacity; without the use of three private prisons, the figure would be 151 percent, Allbaugh said.
Allbaugh said in a statement that the department expects “Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to eventually be the country’s highest” because of “limited results of criminal justice reform in our state.”
The bulk of the agency’s budget request, some $813 million, is to build one male and one female prison to accommodate population growth.
Given the difficulty in hiring staff in rural areas, a new prison would need to be built near a metropolitan area, Allbaugh said.
The agency also is seeking slightly more than $10 million for salary increases and benefits.
“We don’t have enough correctional officers and we don’t pay them very well,” he said.
The agency pays starting correctional officers $12.78 an hour. Even convenience stores pay more, Allbaugh said, while jobs in the oil and gas industry pay over $20 an hour.
About 74 percent of the agency’s correctional officers have been with the agency less than five years, according to the DOC. In fiscal year 2017, correctional officer turnover was 25 percent.
During fiscal year 2017, the agency received and processed 9,683 offenders, and since 2008, paroles have dropped 77 percent, he said.
The agency’s request includes $107 million for repairs and upgrades to facilities.
Allbaugh showed lawmakers pictures of leaking roofs at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply and a failing floor in the control room at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
In addition to the agency’s staffing woes, about 20 percent of the prison population is affiliated with a gang, Allbaugh said. Gangs are responsible for bringing in most of the contraband into the system, he said.
“It is ugly,” Allbaugh said.
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, said the DOC’s situation cries out for criminal justice reform and tax reform.