Last weekend, violence at 6 Oklahoma facilities led to 36 people being injured so badly they had to be transported away from prison for treatment, and the death of a 27-year-old man.
Corrections officials blame the violence on prison gangs and racial tensions – a truth that is only part of the story. Every prison in America deals with prison gangs and racial tensions, but understaffed and underfunded facilities in Oklahoma mean that officials are often unable to prioritize addressing those issues at all. From 2006 to 2016, the number of prisoners increased by 12% in Oklahoma, while at the same time, our number of correctional officers decreased by 14%. Since then we overtook Louisiana to lead the world in rate of incarceration, with the significant legislation aimed at stopping growth remaining in committees unmoved. All while the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has continued to beg for help.Even with recent legislative efforts to raise starting pay for correctional officers to $15.74 an hour, conditions of prison facilities, mandatory overtime, and dangerously low staffing levels make positions hard to fill. The turnover rate for corrections officers in Oklahoma is over 30%. The crowded facilities and lack of supervision is a safety and humanitarian issue for both the people incarcerated and the staff.
As a response to the violence, Oklahoma Department of Corrections has locked down all prison facilities for an indefinite amount of time. That means about 28,000 people, among whom only a tiny percentage are responsible for the recent prison violence, are confined to their small, often overcrowded cells, indefinitely. No visitation, even by attorneys, is allowed. No phone calls are allowed. Even meals are consumed in their cells. Essentially, it makes all prisoners live the life of someone on death row – near constant isolation. When we think about who makes up our prison, the situation becomes even more stark.
Most of our prison population is made up of people with symptoms of or a history of mental illness. Most have a history of substance use disorder. These are our vulnerable neighbors, those citizens with the fewest tools to handle stress, navigate difficult situations, and deal with big emotions. We throw them together in an environment that is frightening and dehumanizing. We take away access to their families, to their attorneys, to their community recovery groups. We lock these people up in the smallest possible level of confinement, with no resources, and we give an overworked, under-paid staff the impossible task of keeping them safe and stable.
It does not have to be this way. We built our prisons, we elect the people who fund the system, we choose the leadership in the Department of Corrections – we can change this system for the better. Every person in prison was charged by a prosecutor and stood in front of a judge who decided that prison is a better option than treatment. A judge and prosecutor decided against mercy, against community service, probation, or any of the evidence-based alternatives that are not only financially superior options, but have worked to bring down the prison population in our neighboring states. We do not have to live this way.
The ACLU of Oklahoma joins with our fellow citizens in calling for a humane justice system, starting with an end to this overly punitive, indefinite response that is doing more harm than good. We call for a fairer structure that recognizes that the people we incarcerate are fully human. We call for fewer prisoners and more staff who are equipped with the resources they need to serve the folks in their custody. Furthermore, we pledge to work with everyone - from victims to social workers, from judges to the condemned, from guards to people incarcerated, from families of victims and families of the accused to create a justice system that recognizes human dignity.