Department of Corrections Begins Restructuring With State-Run Private Facility
Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections begins moving inmates Tuesday to a newly leased private facility in far western Oklahoma, where state employees will run the prison. The agreement between the state and Corrections Corporation of America is a first in Oklahoma’s prison system.
Inmates from the 107-year-old Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite are moving to the 18-year-old North Fork Correctional Facility, owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, in Sayre. The state Department of Corrections will run the prison with its own employees, including Warden Tracy McCollum, who is excited about using touch screens instead of toggle switches to lock cells.
“This is an awesome place. It's newer, it's shinier, it's flashier. It's got newer technology. Everything about it is impressive. Who wouldn't want to work here?” McCollum said after a media tour through the facility last month.
North Fork is the most technologically advanced state-run prison in Oklahoma. The 2,600 bed facility is adaptable. It can function as one cohesive unit, but McCollum also says it can be fenced off and run as three or four “mini prisons” where inmates wouldn’t interact with other groups.
“If you're a 70-year-old guy who's just trying to do his time and not cause a problem, you don't have to deal with the younger, 22-year-old who wants to play games and cause problems,” McCollum said.
“It was built to be a prison,” McCollum noted as he walked the grounds.
It seems like it should be an obvious point. But in Oklahoma, most prisons were converted from old boys’ homes, munitions plants or hospitals, so a built-from-scratch prison is a luxury.
The grounds have more than a dozen buildings, including two education units with computer labs.
“It's a state-of-the-art facility,” DOC spokesperson Alex Gerszewski said. “It's going to do a lot in terms of programming for inmates who are about to discharge. They can get programming they need to get a job and be successful in the outside.”
All 1,200 inmates from the Oklahoma State Reformatory are scheduled to move into North Fork by July 12. After that, the state will begin closing more than a dozen inmate work centers across the state. Those offenders will be relocated to the Granite prison. Communities can still use those inmates for labor, but it’s unclear whether cities and towns will be willing to absorb the cost of bussing inmates hours away.
After the major restructuring occurs, the DOC will evaluate how to best use the 1,400 remaining beds at the private prison.
“We're not just going to open the floodgates and let everybody in and fill up the beds as quickly as possible, although we could,” Gerszewski said. “I don't think it would be the best option or the best use of the facility.”
Interim Director Joe Allbaugh called the lease agreement a “game changer,” saying North Fork Correctional Facility’s flexibility, technology and more efficient system are unmatched in state facilities.
“This is a huge deal, and the taxpayer is going to see the benefits of this move,” Allbaugh said.
The state will spend $37.5 million to lease North Fork Correctional Facility through Fiscal Year 2021. Gerszewski says the DOC will likely see savings in the beginning of 2017 from closing the 15 work centers.