The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones shuns giving his opinion on laws that have filled state prisons to overflowing, but he is not shy about saying the system is in crisis.

“Eventually we’re going to hit that brick wall. It’s in sight and we’re rapidly approaching it. I would say it (overcrowding) is probably at the most critical point it’s been in my 30 years,” he said in a newsmaker interview with The Associated Press.

Jones said officials have less options than ever to deal with overcrowding and he continues to advocate new prison construction and renovation to address the issue, while urging caution about a large increase in the use of private prisons.

He also theorized that Oklahoma’s high rate of incarceration — No. 4 in the country — is tied, in some measure, to the state having “a very weak” county government structure, where money is not available for diversion programs as is the case in some states that send fewer people to prisons.

Nearing the end of his second year as director, Jones said he loves his job and feels he can make a difference in preventing future crime victims by turning inmates away from crime.

“Somebody has to represent this portion of public safety because that’s what it is all about. To me, the best way to provide public safety is to produce successful offenders” who do not commit more crimes when released.

He said Oklahoma has a relatively low recidivism rate compared to other states, but finds it interesting that a researcher told him that was not necessarily a good thing, quoting the expert as saying “what that indicates to me is you are incarcerating a lot of low-risk people.”

Critics of the state’s criminal justice system have long cited statistics showing the vast majority of Oklahoma’s inmates are in for nonviolent offenses and argued many of those offenders should be diverted to less costly forms of punishment.

Jones, 51, has worked as a parole officer, a warden and an administrator of prison receptions, among other things. He has seen the agency’s budget grow from $22 million to $562 million for the current fiscal year. The appropriated budget is $483 million.

He got into corrections work after growing up in the small town of Maysville in Garvin County, where he said a high school graduate has two choices to make a living — working on the farm or in the oil fields.

“I was out in the oil field one day saying is this all there is to life? I decided there had to be something better and I went to college and stumbled into corrections.”

Oklahoma lost its last three corrections directors to the private prison industry, but Jones says that is not for him. “I can say this without hesitation: I have no desire nor will I ever work for a for-profit correctional organization. I have no desire or passion in that direction.”

Jones would not criticize laws that have contributed to overcrowding, such as repeal of early-release programs, requiring many convicts to serve 85 percent of their terms and expanding the list of felony crimes.

But he expressed strong reservations about going too far in using private prison beds to solve the overcrowding dilemma, and he said drug courts should be used more for repeat offenders to divert them from prisons. Many first-time offenders now in drug courts would not be prison bound any way, he said.

Jones said district attorneys and judges make good use of diversion programs.

He also was not critical of fewer paroles signed by Gov. Brad Henry than other governors.

“If you look at paroles in Oklahoma, even if the governor signed every parole that crossed his desk, it is such a small number being recommended it wouldn’t make an impact for me,” Jones said.

Private prisons are part of the solution to managing the inmate population, he said, but “you have to be careful in that regard. You wouldn’t want to run a business where you have only one supplier.”

His concern is that the state could become too dependent on private prisons and be in trouble if they pull out, for one reason or another, leaving perhaps 2,000 prisoners with no where to go.

“We are so crowded that if a tornado hit one of my housing units, or I had a fire or heaven forbid a disturbance, I have no backup beds,” he said. “That is unique in corrections. Normally, corrections will have something that they’ve mothballed. They will have some flexibility.”

He said private prisons generally do not want to deal with maximum security inmates. Besides building a new medium security prison, Jones wants to upgrade the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to handle growth in maximum security inmates.

“What we are hoping to do is to shut down some of the more antiquated housing units, those you would see in the movies like Shawshank Redemption. Even though they meet constitutional muster, it is not safe for the employees, it’s not safe for the inmates.”

He proposes to replace three old cellblocks at the OSP that have open bars, where inmates can hang out and throw things at guards or even attack them with a homemade weapon.

“Maximum security, by any standard in today’s profession are solid doors with bean holes in the bottom. Staff can walk those units and look into those doors without any fear” of being attacked, he said.

The Legislature rejected his request for expanding the prison system. Henry presented the Legislature with a list of bond proposals in his executive budget that included an item for prison expansion. But he did not actively push the plan.

“Their job is to make policy decisions based upon that data and research,” Jones said. “I don’t take it personally if they decline. They treat me very well, even if they don’t respond or create legislation to allow me to build.

“They’re very attentive. It’s just that I feel like that in my 30 years in the business, it’s very difficult for policy makers to decide to spend money on the disenfranchised, on the corrections system, because there are so many other priorities in Oklahoma. I understand that.”

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