After receiving word that yet another prison brawl erupted in an Oklahoma prison, Sen. Kenneth Corn questioned again today what exactly it was going to take to make Republican Speaker of the House Todd Hiett understand there is a crisis in prisons across Oklahoma.
“The Speaker needs to come to the table and engage in this debate because doing nothing is reckless and irresponsible,” Corn, (D-Poteau) said. “This latest incident at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) in McAlester should serve as a reminder to the Republican leadership in the House that the time to act is now-not next year.”
Last week, Corn, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary, and Senate Democrats unveiled a $10.6 million plan to add 150 correctional officers and 50 probation and parole officers to ease staffing shortages within the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC). The Democratic plan also includes a comprehensive solution to address prison overcrowding issues, including the expansion of mental health courts, prison work camps and a capital outlay plan to upgrade DOC facilities.
At the time of the announcement, Republican Speaker Todd Hiett and State Rep. John Trebilcock, a Republican from Tulsa and Corn’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, said they were not interested in coming back to the Capitol during a special session called by Democratic Governor Brad Henry.
“This is a slap in the face to the thousands of correctional officers who put their lives on the line every day, and quite frankly a slap in the face to the communities throughout Oklahoma that could be in danger if the Republicans continue to ignore this public safety issue,” the Senator said.
Corn said the state endured an extremely dangerous situation in McAlester over 30 years ago when a riot broke out due to inadequate staffing and poor prison conditions. As a result of the notorious riot and fires that destroyed more 23 buildings and took three lives, the prison remains on lock down 23 hours out of the day.
“I certainly do not think the people of Oklahoma want to go through another McAlester,” Corn said. “But if we continue to live by Speaker Hiett’s philosophy of ‘wait until next year’, we certainly could be heading down that road very soon.”
Corn said throughout the regular session he plead with Republican budget negotiators to fully fund DOC. He said not only did Republicans not fully fund DOC during the regular session, but also Trebilcock, the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary, was reluctant to schedule meetings about public safety with the Senator.
“My pleas fell on deaf ears time and time again,” Corn said. “It is shameful that even now with violence erupting more frequently, the Republicans still refuse to engage in this extremely important public safety debate.”
President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, (D-Stillwater) said acting now to address these public safety issues should be the number one priority of lawmakers, not waiting until next year. The Senate leader continues to talk to Governor Henry about the possibility of the Senate reconvening to pass the Democratic proposed plan. Morgan anticipates calling senators back to the Capitol to send the comprehensive plan to the House prior to Labor Day.
“It simply is the right thing to do for the public safety of all Oklahomans,” Morgan said. “Doing otherwise and waiting until next year is irresponsible and could put lives in jeopardy.”