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Oklahoma Corrections Board to vote on private prison rental

Corrections officials have devised a novel way to ease overcrowding: renting an empty 2,600-bed private prison in Sayre and shuttering the state's inmate work centers.

The contract, negotiated by Interim Director Joe Allbaugh, will be presented for a vote to the Oklahoma Board of Corrections at their Thursday meeting, a source close to the deal told The Oklahoman on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the contract publicly.

The state will present a contract to the board proposing the state rent the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, a private prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America. The 2,400 bed prison was emptied in 2012, when the state of California began returning inmates serving out of state, in an effort to save money.

By the year 2015, the facility was closed.

Pending an approval vote by the state Corrections Board on Thursday afternoon, it would be the first time in state history the state Corrections Department has rented a private prison. North Fork would be staffed and operated by the state, not CCA.    

To pay for the multimillion-dollar contract, which would last 5 1/2 years, the source said the state would shut down the department's 15 community work centers across the state. About 1,300 Oklahoma inmates are housed in those work centers, according to department records. Inmates housed in the centers are allowed to leave during business hours to work a job in nearby communities. Many of those offenders work for mere dollars a month to do things such as mowing grass and repairing buildings owned by the cities they work in.

Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department, declined to comment on the contract.

Discussion of the deal and a “Facility Consolidation Plan” are both on the agenda for Thursday's board meeting

CCA spokesman Steve Owen also declined to discuss the contract.

The idea, the source said, is that over the course of the first 18 months the state would not pay rent under the deal and would save millions of dollars from the closure of the work centers. Those savings will offset much of the cost of the rest of the contract with CCA.

The Corrections Department can use all the help it can get financially, as its inmate population fluctuates around 120 percent capacity, its prisons are about 70 percent staffed and the state faces a $1.3 billion budgetary shortfall.

According to the source familiar with the plan, the inmates currently housed at state work centers will be sent to the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, which will act as the state's new work center facility. Inmates serving at Granite are many of the state's oldest. The nearly 800 offenders at the reformatory are all at least 40 years old. The offenders at the reformatory will be moved into North Fork in Sayre.

If the board approves the contract, it would mean 500 jobs for Sayre, a city of about 4,600 people. However, what the move means for the current employees of the state's work centers is unclear.

“Five hundred jobs in a town of 4,000 is massive,” said Belinda Graham, executive director of the Sayre Chamber of Commerce. “When those (prison) jobs went away, we had … a massive export of families here because they had to find work.”

Sayre lost considerable tax revenue when the private prison closed, she said, and city staff was let go and a spending freeze was put in place in the months to follow. The city's hospital also shut down in February.

“For us, the closing of the prison was absolutely devastating,” she said. “So, the prospect of having that back has me excited.”

Mayor Eddie Tom Lakey said he was holding off on celebrating until the deal is approved by the board, but he said it would mean a lot to the city if the prison was reopened. Lakey said Allbaugh was in town last month to tour both North Fork and the closed hospital, but he did not say whether or not the department planned to reopen the facility.

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Graham Lee Brewer

Graham Lee Brewer has covered criminal justice, the state prison system, the death penalty, and the state legislature for The Oklahoman, since joining its staff in 2013. Brewer witnessed and investigated the botched execution of Clayton Lockett,... Read more ›

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