It has been a nearly year since the Oklahoma Department of Corrections closed three inmate work centers that served Ardmore and Southern Oklahoma.
As a result, some cities have been forced to absorb additional labor cost while others have had to look elsewhere to make up the difference.
“When they decided to close these work centers, no one in the legislature knew,” said Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore. “There’s no doubt that the prison board director did it this way, because the legislatures would try to stop it. In fairness to him though he was trying to save billions of dollars in corrections. We needed to save money and this was a way to do it, but no doubt it has hurt our smaller cities.”
The Oklahoma Board of Corrections decided last May to allow the Oklahoma DOC to rent a private prison in Sayre on a $37.5 million, five-year contract.
In order to offset the price of the private prison the DOC closed 15 inmate work centers across the state including the three in Southern Oklahoma.
Under the “Prisoners Public Works Act,” public agencies in Oklahoma could contract with their local center for inmate services. These inmates then were picked up by city employees and bused into surrounding cities to do various jobs depending on their skill set and the city’s needs.
Cities could pay inmates minimum wage, significantly reducing labor cost.
The center provided workers for the Airpark, Gene Autry, Davis and Ardmore. While the inmate work center in Wilson provided workers for Wilson, Healdton, and Lone Grove. The third center, near Madill, provided workers for Marshall County.
“There has been a financial burden,” Ardmore Parks and Recreation Director Teresa Ervin said. “We’ve had to realize our projects will take longer and the litter has become more noticeable.”
In Ardmore, the Ardmore Parks and Recreation department used the inmate workers for a variety of tasks. The workers picked up litter around town, cleaned the waterpark before it opened each summer, trimmed trees, mowed city property and even helped hang holiday lights for Ardmore’s Festival of Lights.
Ervin said that on any given day 6-10 inmate workers would be assisting the Parks and Rec. Department.
“You can’t make up that many workers,” Ervin said. “We just don’t have the ability to hire that many staff.”
Parks and Recreation isn’t the only department the inmates served. In Ardmore alone they worked under the supervision of the Ardmore Development Authority, for Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troop F and at the Airpark.
“We lost probably 50 percent of our workforce (at the airpark) when they closed the center,” said Mita Bates, president and CEO of the Ardmore Development Authority.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires lawns around airports to be maintained at a certain level to protect wildlife around the airstrip. The inmate workers aided in keeping the lawn up to code.
Bates said that the airpark now contracts out companies to maintain the lawn, which sets the city back $250,000 annually.
The city of Lone Grove employed as many as 12 inmate workers on any given day. These workers were used to mow cemeteries and city parks and do janitorial work at the fire department and the senior center.
The city now contracts out the lawn maintenance, spending around $20,000 more a year.
“It’s been a pretty big financial hit for us,” said Ian O’Neil, Lone Grove city manager. “Twenty-thousand dollars to this city is a lot of money. That’s a new vehicle for our water department, or a police car, or new fire equipment.”
Lone Grove has been working to replace the inmate workers with part-time and full-time employees but progress is slow.
Davis has also suffered since the closure of the work centers. Davis employed 10 – 11 workers a day, and used them year round. In Davis the workers kept Main Street clean, did much of the mowing around town and repaired water and sewer lines when they needed.
“I’ve only been able to hire two people to offset that,” City Manager Tom Graham said. “We’re always playing catch up and the budget doesn’t allow for me to hire more.”
Graham said by the time the city pays for benefit packages for workers, and pays their salary, they spend three times more per worker. The closure of the centers came as a huge shock for Davis, because they had been contracting with the center for more than 20 years, Graham said.
But the city that’s taken the largest hit is Healdton.
“No question, the city had become dependent on inmate work and now plays catch-up each and every day,” said Lane Jones, Healdton city manager.
Healdton employed 16-18 inmates when its program was in full force. The inmates worked for the water, sewer, and street departments. Their work cost the city $300 — $500 per month.
When the program ended Healdton hired three full-time employees to replace the inmates, but this came at a cost of around $130,000 - $150,000 per year in labor.
“The largest impact to the city having experienced the loss of the inmate program has been in its ability to work pro-actively,” Jones said. “It’s very difficult to schedule work given the amount of work needed and the limited manpower to accomplish (tasks).”
While cities struggle to find the funds to replace the inmates, work continues to go undone. Grass gets tall before it’s mowed, trees aren’t trimmed back in time and trash sits near road much longer than it once did.
The Ardmore Parks and Recreation Department hope to combat the litter by starting an adopt a street program, but plans for that are still in its infancy. Cities like Gene Autry are applying for state grants offset the cost of paying full-time workers.
The decision, though beneficial for the state, inadvertently harmed the small municipalities that benefited the most from the work centers.
“We were 60 percent staffed and overpopulated at about 110 – 115 percent so the pressure on him (the DOC director) was immense,” Ownbey said. “A lot of these guys and gals did a good job, but again they were incarcerated, and according to the director we could save millions by putting them all under one roof. We in the legislature will cut their budget and then yell at them for cutting programs.”