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Oklahoma corrections agency eyes massive security upgrades to boost safety

Matthew Ansley

The Department of Corrections is working on plans to completely revamp the antiquated security technology in all of its correctional facilities in an effort to improve safety behind bars for inmates and correctional employees.

Kay Thompson, a spokesperson for the agency, said the planned changes will include new perimeter fencing, security cameras and other components that will improve the entire system. As it builds a new security plan, the agency is looking at best practices adopted in other states while focusing on increasing staffing.

“We are going to do a massive revamp of everything,” Thompson said.

The expected cost is still unknown, she said. Needs at facilities will vary based on the layout and overall prison security level, but DOC officials expect they’ll likely ask lawmakers for additional appropriations once plans and costs are finalized.

“This will be a multi-year, probably multi-million dollar project that we will roll out over several years,” Thompson said. She said it will take at least three years to make all the necessary security improvements.

The agency is currently using its existing budget to replace aging equipment as it fails, but Thompson said the cost of the upgrades will exceed the current allocation.

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, who chairs the House’s criminal justice committee, said he “1,000% supports” adding new security equipment, but wants DOC to find efficiencies in its existing funding.

He said modernizing the technology would allow correctional employees to monitor an entire prison, control gate access remotely and screen inmates and visitors more efficiently. Humphrey said he’d also like DOC to invest in technology that disables cell phone usage in prisons and allows the agency to locate cell phones being used in the prison recreation yard.

He said illicit cell phone usage contributes to gangs communicating with inmates in other prisons and those who aren’t incarcerated.

Humphrey said every prison should also have the capability to conduct X-ray screenings of all belongings being brought in.

“There’s a lot of technology that would massively improve security and safety,” he said, adding that this upgrade is going to be expensive.

Humphrey said he believes Oklahoma’s prisons have become more dangerous in the past year. He’s heard reports from both inmates and correctional staff that there’s been an increase in stabbings and overall violence, though he hasn’t yet seen any statistics to back that up.

Bobby Cleveland, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said he’d welcome technology upgrades. He attributes the violence behind bars to a lack of security cameras, but also issues with understaffing and contraband being smuggled into prisons.

“I feel like that they have an obligation to keep the inmates safe as well as the other employees safe, and they have failed on that,” he said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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