Sheriff: Inmate crowding strains jail

By Pat Hammert/Staff Writer

Canadian County’s 72-bed jail is overcrowded with inmates who are either waiting for their chance to declare their innocence to the court or those that have failed in the attempt.

Those that failed — currently about one-sixth of the jail’s population — wait around in the jail until state Department of Corrections has a space in a state institution.

The problem: The 17 correctional centers and penitentiaries operated by DOC are overcrowded, too. So how long are the adjudicated prisoners held in county jail?

“Until the 12th of never,” Canadian County Sheriff Lewis Hawkins said.

Costs to house the inmate becomes a county cost, much to the dismay of sheriffs in non-metro counties across the state, he said.

The only reprieve is the 72-hour rule. Once a county jail reaches 90-percent capacity, then counties can initiate a demand to DOC. Within 72 hours, the inmate in county jail is transported to a DOC facility.

When Hawkins became sheriff 17 years ago, DOC would schedule inmate transfers, but that doesn’t happen now that space is a premium. State inmates number almost 25,000, with a similar number under probation.

“They have no room; they can’t take them. So we hold them at the county,” he said.

Last week, Canadian County deputies transferred 11 inmates to state holding facilities, using the 72-hour rule.

Hawkins said rarely is the county jail not at capacity, yet warrants are sitting in filing cabinets on county individuals with lesser charges, such as failure to pay child support or petty theft.

“I don’t have room to put penny-ante people in here,” he said.

At least one cell is always available in case a county arrest is made of an individual “who’s a danger to the public at large.”

When community sentencing laws in the 1990s created the need for more minimum security cells at the county levels, Canadian County began planning ways to expand the jail space across Penn Street to the north.

But Hawkins said the county-owned property on the next block is not large enough for the county’s needs. About 10 acres is needed for an adequate and secure facility, he said.

With a county that is the third largest in the state in population, Canadian County needs at least a 250-bed jail.

Built in the mid-1980s, the current building’s plumbing, heat and air systems are failing. When constructed, “they took every shortcut in the world to save money,” Hawkins said.

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Child support needs to be paid.

I, as a single mother needs extra cash when needed. I have a 14 year old thats father is in prison and there is no way for him to pay me. He will be in there for 3 more years, and I still won't be paid. They need to let the less criminal prisoners out on a work release so that the custodial parent can be paid. The less that parents have to use welfare the better off everyone would be. Don't you agree?? Thanks for listening Stephanie

Flight risks?

It would be interesting to see what charges are pending for those actually behind bars at this time. Sadly, we have locked up so many Okies for drug offenses that we have little room for the violent offenders. I hate drugs and everything they do to people and families, but I'm not seeing where locking people away is solving the problem. The drug court seems a lot more effective, but only when it's a long-term program. Considering that once a person goes away on a felony rap, their chance of landing on their feet afterwards is slim to none. What HR manager wants to take responsibility for recommending a felon as a new hire? I must admit that I wouldn't.

I've seen where people call for private prisons to solve these problems, but frankly, I think privatized prisons are a very bad idea. Let's face it: a privatized prison has no incentive to reduce recidivism, because a revolving-door inmate is very profitable, moral issues aside.

The question is: how many of the people sitting in the jail are flight risks? Are we that much more secure spending our tax dollars to lock up folks who couldn't afford a bondsman's fee?

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