Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series taking a look at how Southern Oklahoma cities are coping a year after the Oklahoma Department  of Corrections shut down 15 inmate work centers.

A year after the Oklahoma Department of Corrections closed the inmate area work centers cities are suffering and looking for ways to make up the difference.

“We’re making the best of a bad situation,” said Frank Schaaf, the mayor of Wilson. “It’s taken us a lot longer to do things, like mowing. We may never catch up with that.”

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections decided last May to allow the Oklahoma DOC to rent a private prison in Sayre. The $37.5 million, five-year contract was considered too expensive and in order to offset the price, the DOC closed 15 inmate work centers across the state— most of which were in southern Oklahoma.

The center at the Airpark was part of these cuts, and closed its doors last July.

The inmate work centers serviced surrounding cities like: Ardmore, Lone Grove, Wilson, Healdton and Gene Autry. They also took care of the lawn maintenance at the airpark.

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 bussed into surrounding cities to do various jobs depending on their skill set and the city’s needs.

Cities could pay inmates minimum wage, making their labor cheap and affordable.

The city of Wilson hired up to 10 inmates on any given day and used them to help with lawn maintenance of city property, the up-keep of equipment, picking up brush, trash collection and cleaning up litter throughout the city.

According to Schaaf, Wilson’s city budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $886,000. He said the city has has to spend “at least $40,000” more on fewer non-inmate workers, and still haven’t been able to make up the loss in low-cost labor.

“We just can’t afford to replace those ten bodies,” Schaaf said. “It’s had a negative impact on the city because we could have utilized that $40,000 somewhere else.”

Likewise, Gene Autry has felt the absence of the workers.

“We used them (inmate workers) a lot for roadside cleanup, and restoration of our museum,” Gene Autry Mayor Kyle Lawson said. “We easily saved $100,000 in labor each year with the work we used them for.”

Lawson added that the city has seen a decline in revenue as well due to the inmate center being closed. The proximity of the Airpark to Gene Autry provided a perfect place for correctional officers working at the facility to go out and spend their money. Since the facility closed, many of the officers left the area.

“It’s hard and it’s difficult and it’s frustrating because it was a tool for the community and a passage back into the workforce for the inmates,” Lawson said.

Gene Autry is looking to make up the losses by applying for grants through the state. City officials plan to use the grant money for beautification projects the workers were previously used for — like the museum renovation.