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Public Safety Concerns In Two-Prison Town Draw Candidates’ Attention In Northeastern Oklahoma

Jul 31, 2018

If you follow your nose to the back of Boots Cafe, you’ll run into swinging wood doors hanging underneath a metal script sign of the word ‘Blessed.’

 

Inside, you’ll find the kitchen and a staff of two, including owner Sylvia Wilson who immediately recites the days special: “We got loaded baked potatoes today, we got lasagna and salad …”

Wilson has lived in Taft her entire life. The town of about 300 located about an hour southeast of Tulsa is one of Oklahoma’s 13 remaining historic black towns. Taft doesn’t have a police force, and it has been home to two minimum security state prisons since the 1980s.

Wilson says she’s never liked living near the prisons — and she’ll never get used to it. “But (they’re) here and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” she said.

One of those prisons, Jess Dunn Correctional Center, is overcrowded and understaffed, state prison officials say. Wilson and other residents are angry because of a recent surge of inmates escaping the minimum security facility by walking away — a trend they say endangers them and others in Taft.

Four people have walked out of the prison so far in 2018. And while the escapees were recaptured, Wilson worries the next escapee might break into someone’s house, or even come into her restaurant and take somebody hostage. “They could kill somebody in Taft,” she said.

None of the people who walked out of Jess Dunn this year committed such violent crimes after escaping, but authorities said one man did break into a house and steal a truck.

Wilson and other Taft residents just want to feel safe — and they’re not alone.

Securing the vote

A survey commissioned by public radio stations for the Oklahoma Engaged project suggests public safety is a top political concern among residents in the northeastern region of the state that includes Taft.

The survey data and interviews with residents highlight how local concerns about police and public safety can spill into state political races.

Republican state Rep. Avery Frix of House District 13 says many of his constituents in Taft and nearby Muskogee have complained about people escaping the prisons.

Frix represents parts of McIntosh and Muskogee Counties and drew no primary challenger this year. He says Jess Dunn’s walk-away inmates put Taft and neighboring communities on edge.

“That sense of safety is something that’s incredibly important to a town,” he said.

Jess Dunn didn’t have any walkaways in 2017, according to Department of Corrections records.

It’s a problem that strikes close to home for Frix during an election year. The rash of escapes began in early March, just about a month before the statewide deadline to file for reelection.

The four inmates who’ve fled Taft prisons this year were serving sentences for crimes ranging from burglary and theft to kidnapping, child abuse, rape and sexual abuse of a minor.

Frix says he received an email from the man whose home was broken into by the escapee. The man said the escapee stole his pickup and left a trail of broken glass and blood stains his daughter discovered. Frix said the man’s family feels like their home was violated.

State prison officials say they don’t know why there’ve been so many walkaways from Jess Dunn this year, but they believe a shortage of correctional officers fueled by low pay and prison overcrowding made it harder to prevent the escapes.

At the Capitol this year, Frix voted for tax increases to raise pay for state workers — including corrections officers — and he voted for a corrections funding increase to help fix crumbling prisons.

Frix says he’s also working with law enforcement to bring more security to Taft. He says he asked local sheriff’s deputies to patrol Taft more often, and he asked the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to station a trooper in the town.

The patrol signed an agreement to provide Taft limited help anytime the town requested it, but stopped short of stationing a trooper in town.

Frix’s opponent in the statewide general election, Democrat Jolene Armstrong, also had no primary challenger. She says she hasn’t campaigned in Taft — and hasn’t talked to residents about ways to improve the town’s security.

If elected, Armstrong says she’d ask the county sheriff’s office and Muskogee police for help patrolling the area, but she hesitates to ask the highway patrol for additional help. Armstrong says troopers are too busy keeping people safe on state highways. She says the town needs more patrols because of the nearby prisons.

“I could see why people are very concerned about it,” Armstrong said.

While checking the vending machine outside the Boots Cafe, owner Sylvia Wilson, said she likes that Frix asked for help from the sheriff’s department and the highway patrol. She said a stronger police presence would help keep the town safe.

Wilson feels like Taft is overlooked and often forgotten because it’s a small town that doesn’t have a lot of influence. She hopes that will change. She wants whoever wins the District 13 House race to stop the prison walkaways.

“We’re trying to stay safe. They’re here; just keep us safe. That’s all we’re asking,” she said.

 

Oklahoma Engaged is a public service journalism collaboration of KOSUKGOUKWGSKCCU, and StateImpact Oklahomawith support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and listener contributions.