When California ran out of space to house its growing inmate population, it turned to Corrections Corporation of America, which owns private prisons in 16 states, including Oklahoma.
Now there are more than 2,000 Californians locked up at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre. The arrangement wasn’t supposed to cost Oklahoma anything, but a recent riot at North Fork is changing that.
Forty-six inmates were injured before CCA guards were able to restore order in the October 2011 riot. The company isn’t saying what caused the riot, but prosecutors say some of the California inmates who started it committed crimes in Oklahoma, and will have to face justice here.
That task falls to Beckham County District Attorney Dennis Smith’s office.
“The facility, we figure, pumps about $1.3 million into our town every year.”
-Sayre City Manager Guy Hylton
“Now, this riot will create substantial costs to us,” Smith says. “A lot of that is going to depend on how many cases we actually file. It’s already added a strain. So, for me to be able to expound exactly how much it costs — there are so many factors that go into that. How many people are prosecuted? How many are convicted? How many are actually going to serve time.”
Smith oversees a five-county district, and his office is still dealing with job cuts resulting from the state budget crisis. Resources are thin, and the possibility of having to prosecute up to 20 riot-related violent crimes won’t help matters.
“D.U.I.s, shoplifting, burglary, we see that kind of stuff,” Smith says. “Conversely, you get into cases that we don’t deal with a lot. One of those is prison cases.”
Charges are expected to be filed within weeks, but prosecution is only part of the cost to the state.
“When we prosecute someone, say it’s for assaulting a guard or assaulting a fellow inmate, and we assign them some length of sentence, they’re not going to serve it in CCA. They’ve suddenly become the property of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections when it’s time to serve their sentence. That’s an additional cost to the citizens, taxpayers of Oklahoma,” Smith says.
But for Sayre, with a population of about 4,000, having the prison means more than 400 area jobs. And City Manager Guy Hylton calls CCA a good corporate citizen.
“The facility, we figure, pumps about a $1.3 million into our town every year,” Hylton says. “They have a huge usage of utilities that we provide, and then they give us a fee for every prisoner — an impact fee every month. So, it helps the city tremendously.”
But now, California is starting to bring its inmates home, and Sayre’s prison revenue stream is in danger of drying up, along with hundreds of jobs.