Department of Corrections sets new, unfortunate record

Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections added more than a thousand people to its system as of August 31 in the last nine months alone, the highest amount of people to ever be in Oklahoma’s system at a time. According to a press release by the Department of Corrections (DOC), a total of more than 63,000 are currently in the DOC system. These include over 34,700 people under surveillance (which includes parolees and people under probation), over 26,700 people incarcerated, and more than 1500 awaiting incarceration in county jail backup. As of the Department of Justice’s 2015 reports, Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country.
The simple solution is to stop sending people back to prison. Much of the argument surrounding the prison system targets reintegration programs that allow ex-prisoners to adjust to life outside of confinement. Helping people to get jobs, housing and to reconnect with their communities are major challenges when so little funding and resources are provided. Ex-prisoners often have no source of income when they leave prison, and face trouble getting a job when they have been convicted of a crime. If their family does not take them back, they have to find a new place to stay while, again, low on funds. It can seem like common sense to resort to crime in these situations, and thus end up back in prison, a trend called “recidivism.”
There’s only one problem: as of 2004, Oklahoma had the lowest rate of recidivism in the United States. Pew Center found that just 24.1 percent of Oklahoma prisoners returned to prison after their release.
The number has increased slightly since then but remained fairly consistent. Clearly, Oklahoma’s biggest concern is not repeat offenders.
One of the bigger problems is the length of prison sentence. Pew Trust found that Oklahoma’s prison sentence length has increased 83 percent from 1990-2009. Prisoners are spending more time in prison. Another problem leading to the increase in the correctional population is that many of the crimes for which people are convicted are nonviolent, and nonviolent offenders are also being held for longer. The same study found that the time served for drug offenses in Oklahoma more than doubled in the two decades of the study.
We have to ask ourselves what prisons and the Department of Corrections are for. Does the increase in prison population, in the number of people who are monitored by the government, create a safer and closer-knit community? Or does it only increase the number of people who cannot vote, who no longer feel like they have a place in their community, and estrange them from the life they had wanted to lead before taking a detour to a life that distances them from the average experience of their peers?
Not only is jail an alienating and life-altering experience, but as of 2014 Oklahoman prisoners there were 4.5 times as many African-American prisoners as there were white prisoners. This is not only an issue of crime, but of race and the ways that the current prison system benefits white people while stacking the deck against minorities.
The number of people within the DOC system is inexcusable. The rate of incarceration and surveillance has outpaced its usefulness. Instead of a security system, legal punishment in Oklahoma has become a looming threat that is more and more present in daily life. However, specific measures can be taken to lessen the number of people in prison and under surveillance while not stripping the legal system of its power to protect the community from dangerous citizens.
Nonviolent offenses should be punished less harshly, with fewer convictions and less time spent in jail. Drug-related crimes are an obvious facet of this category, and while they can damage a community, drug and alcohol abuse are addictions. We should spend more money on rehabilitating people than we do punishing them.
State Questions are a great way to make your voice heard on this issue.
Be sure to vote in local elections where your vote not only matters, but has a direct effect on the people around you. You can also call your district representatives in the state legislature to get more information and notify them that this is an issue that you care about.

Post Author: Raven Fawcett