Oklahoma looking for answers to solve high incarceration rate
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
Oklahoma now has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with over 27,000 inmates behind bars. Someone like LeQuane Swain knows what is like on the inside.
The first thing you notice about him is his casual and calm leadership style. You'd never know that he spent four years in prison for robbery and simple assault.
"It’s like crime school. You go there and learn new crimes,” Swain said.
LeQuane turned his life around. He now loves his job leading his crew with the Center for Employment Opportunities, a company who helps people with criminal convictions find jobs. But his story is rare. Someone who beats the cycle that is flooding Oklahoma prisons.
A new study by the Prison Policy Initiative tracks how many prisoners there are. Oklahoma is at number one, a position previously held by Louisiana. Oklahoma locks people up at a high rate. It's more than 150 percent than the national average. And it’s the highest on the planet, beating out entire countries like Canada and England.
Oklahoma prisons are overflowing. At 114 percent capacity, preventing the DOC from providing crucial services like substance abuse and mental health counseling to everyone who needs it. Right now, only one third of Oklahoma prisoners gets the services they need behind the wire. Department of Corrections spokesperson Matt Elliott says that ideally his agency would be preparing people to re-enter society.
"Right now, we're warehousing people," Elliott said.
Strides were made this past legislative session toward criminal justice reform including geriatric parole and loosening sentences on petty crimes. This, after Governor Mary Fallin created a task force in 2016 to identify the system's major flaws saying, "we’re taking Oklahoma to the next level as it relates to criminal justice reform." Those across the political spectrum agree that these efforts were good steps in the right direction. But for now, still just a plug in the dam.
"They don't address our current population needs. They help with growth but our population is still going to grow” Elliott said.
We are not the only state to have faced this problem. Texas was notorious for putting the most people behind bars for years. But through a rigorous refocus on rehabilitation over incarceration the Lone Star State was able to close eight prisons in six years and save $3 billion. Andrew Speno of Right on Crime Oklahoma was asked by FOX 25 why Oklahoma is not taking similar measures.
"Everybody wants to do it, people just cant decide how to do it," Speno said.
26 percent of Oklahoma inmates end up back in the system once they get out, largely due to the lack of services while on the inside. Programs like CEO and people like LeQuane now mentor former inmates on how to break the cycle.
"Educate yourself, go back and get a trade, don't make excuses for why you cant be productive," Swain said.
The Department of Corrections says they need two new prisons that would cost around$800 million.
We've got your back if you or someone you know is someone with a criminal conviction is looking for a job. You can head to the Center for Employment opportunities website for more information click here.