Work is already underway at the Department of Corrections newly leased North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre. The former private prison will soon be in state hands in an effort to combat overcrowding.
Built in 1998, the state is leasing the faculty from Tennessee based Corrections Corporations of America for an average of $7.5 million a year, but the facility will be rent-free to the state for the first 18 months, according to reports.
North Fork will also be the youngest prison in the Oklahoma DOC. It will also be the most technologically advanced and up-to-date prison, according to a release from DOC.
Warden Tracey McCollum will oversee the new 2600 inmate facility. He told a group of reporters touring the empty facility on Thursday, he’s spent close to 29 years in corrections, working at several facilities in Oklahoma.
Currently, McCollum is the warden at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, OK which houses 1200 inmates, mostly medium security. Most of his 97-member staff and all the inmates will be moved here next month he told reporters.
Work to make the prison inmate ready has been taking place for several weeks. At the time of the tour, information technology workers were still making some adjustments on prison systems. McCollum said the kitchen was still being finished but said it’s expected to be done before inmates arrive.
“I am pleased and I'm proud to be here,” he said standing inside on of three maximum security cell blocks on Thursday. “I think the maintenance department did a wonderful job keeping it up for the period it was empty.”
In all, the facility will be the largest prison in the state, according to a release from DOC. North Fork has nine different housing units for medium security convicts, including space for 360 maximum security inmates and a segregation unit. It also has a state of the art medical unit and a functioning education center.
“Most if these [inmates] don’t have any education,” McCollum said.
The education center was a point of pride for McCollum and Director Joe Albaugh who made a brief appearance at the facility, but declined to talk to reporters. The educational center was filled with several small studying rooms and a computer room. McCollum said he was not sure what kinds of skills inmates would learn, but mentioned the possibility of literacy course.
The medical unit, which is currently being partially operated by CCA, had already been outfitted with three nursing bays and seven medical cells. Shirley May, the current medical unit supervisor, told reporters there would be one doctor on staff at all times and three nurses in the unit.
She said should there be a serious issue with an inmate, they would be transferred to a nearby hospital. The trip will be longer after the closure of Sayre hospital in recent months.
FOR PROFIT PRISONS AND JOB CREATION
Leasing the formerly private prison was a controversial decision. Many in the legislature, including House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) had worries about the effects of for profit prisons on the justice system.
The use of private prisons has grown as the United States’ incarceration rate ballooned in the past several decades. According to eh American Civil Liberties Union, private prisons rely on keeping a steady amount of inmates incarcerated to keep funding. However, the North Fork facility will only be leased to the state. It will be staffed with DOC employees.
Others have voiced fears of job loss around the OSR. McCollum said jobs and state housing has been offered to his employees at the Granite facility. Some have accepted the housing, some have not he said.
According to DOC Spokesperson Alex Gerszewski, the prison employ roughly 300 people, although he noted that number is subject to change based on the staffing needs once the prisons are moved. He also added there was a recent job fair in the Sayre which netted 110 job applications.
The department is facing staggering overcrowding. According to minutes from the most recent DOC meeting, prisons were at 112 percent capacity. A department spokesperson has also said the switch to North Fork will save Oklahomans 18 million dollars a year.
The lease with CCA officially begins July 1 and inmates will begin being transferred July 5. McCollum said 230 prisoners would be transferred in the first day and 280 would follow on July 6. He added the number of inmates would fluctuate per day, but estimated transfers from OSR would be finished by July 12.