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Groups seek action to minimize COVID-19 spread in Oklahoma prisons

Groups seek action to minimize COVID-19 spread in Oklahoma prisons


OKLAHOMA CITY — A criminal justice reform organization is asking state leaders to undertake a number of measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, which may have killed four inmates as of Monday.

Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, outlined those suggestions in a Sept. 4 letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow.

The requests came after some prisons reported COVID-19 outbreaks. On Monday, the DOC reported that the number of inmates who died after having either tested positive or having COVID-19 symptoms had reached four.

“The environment inside prisons fosters health hazards and unsafe conditions especially during a pandemic,” Steele, a former Oklahoma House speaker, wrote in the Sept. 4 letter. “People in prison are 3x as likely to die of COVID-19 as people on the outside, adjusted for demographic factors, and the way facilities are set up does not allow people to social distance or protect themselves.”

Steele asked for the expedited signing of any pending sentence commutations approved by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. He also asked for the expedited release of inmates who are eligible for electronic monitoring.

He asked that offenders with one or more chronic or underlying health conditions, as well as those over 55 years old be screened to determine eligibility for medical parole.

Steele asked that the Pardon and Parole Board be instructed to consider any public safety factors associated with the individuals and make recommendations for release to Stitt as soon as possible.

He also asked that the Department of Corrections compile a list of offenders who are within 60 days of release to be considered for reprieves.

Steele said he has not gotten a response.

Stitt and Crow did not immediately respond to a request from the Tulsa World for comment.

Meanwhile, advocates from across the state have offered a number of supports for offenders released from Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft. Of the inmates at the facility, 211 are currently considered positive for COVID-19 and 570 others are considered recovered.

Those supports include 150 transitional living beds, $2,250 in stipends for each of 200 women over 60 days, $100,000 in emergency reentry support upon release and case management services.

“Recognizing the Covid crisis at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, private philanthropy and nonprofits quickly came together to organize a safe reentry plan for the women directly impacted,” said Amy Santee, senior program officer with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. “Because it is a minimum (security) facility and many women are nearing the end of their time, preparing to reenter our community, we believe it is the most ethical, financially responsible and safest option for our state.”

Throughout the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, 1,987 offenders had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, with 662 currently positive, the department's website indicates.

The Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center, a minimum security facility for men in Vinita, had the second-highest number of currently positive inmates, at 202, according to the DOC’s website.​ The Eddie Warrior facility has the most positive cases.


Barbara Hoberock


Twitter: @bhoberock

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