The North Fork Correctional Facility in Oklahoma is filled with more than 2,000 inmates, all from California. And that’s brought an economic boost to the small town of Sayre.
But California is reducing its prison population and recently announced plans to bring its inmates back home.
Local business owner Lori Herring moved to Sayre five years ago, and credits the prison for helping to revitalize the town.
“There are more businesses in the downtown area,” Herring says. “It’s more vibrant. I know that they’ve hired a lot of people and brought a lot of people into the area. So, yeah, definitely a little concern.”
In addition to increased revenue from business activity, Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that owns the facility, pays the town $68,000 per month in impact fees.
But the company doesn’t have to pay those fees if North Fork sits empty.
Like any other industry, the private prison industry is dependent upon demand for its services. Although the number of inmates housed in private prisons in the U.S. has increased by more than one-third in the past eight years, 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available) saw a dip in those figures. A similar decrease occurred in the state and federal prison and jail populations overall.
“It’ll be a couple hundred thousand easy in utilities. It doesn’t help your budget any.”
-Sayre City Manager Guy Hylton
No state has managed to reduce its prison population more than California, where overcrowding became such a bad problem that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on it last year. The Court ruled that California had to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.
“It was always meant to be a temporary solution to our prison-overcrowding crisis, housing inmates out of state,” says Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections. “We recently went through an entire transformation, called Public Safety Realignment. And, by that, low-level offenders convicted after October 1, 2011 now serve their term in county jail. We’ve reduced our prison population by over 20,000 inmates.”
City Manager Guy Hylton says the loss will hurt the city’s bottom line. “It’ll be a couple hundred thousand easy in utilities. It doesn’t help your budget any,” he said.
He said he has to hope another state might eventually want to use the facility to make up for the loss.
“In the past we’ve had Alaska. We’ve had Hawaii. We’ve had Wisconsin. And so they’re not the only state where prisoners are being outsourced,” he said.
State Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones says that state might just be Oklahoma, whose prison population continues to increase.
“Reality is, in the next few years, we’re going to have to start going into those vacant facilities at some percentage,” Jones says. “We’re going to need to, gradually, as we have net growth, go into more private prison beds.”
There’s confusion about whether the more than 400 jobs at North Fork will be lost in the near future.
But from CCA to the California Department of Corrections and city officials in Sayre, the parties agree: The timing of this decision, coming just months after a major riot at the prison, is a coincidence.