New Oklahoma prisons chief: Facilities crumbling, morale low

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Posted: Feb 10, 2016 6:52 PM
New Oklahoma prisons chief: Facilities crumbling, morale low

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A longtime Republican political operative who previously headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency now has the daunting task of leading Oklahoma's overcrowded and underfunded prison system, which has come under increasing scrutiny after a series of problematic executions.

Joe Allbaugh, a 63-year-old native of Blackwell, Oklahoma, appointed interim director of the Department of Corrections last month, said Wednesday that he's made unannounced visits to more than a dozen prisons in the state. He said facilities are crumbling and overcrowded, guards are underpaid and understaffed, employee morale is low and the state is ill-prepared to handle a projected increase of more than 1,000 new inmates over the next year.

"We don't have an extra 1,000 beds out there," Allbaugh said in an interview at the department's Oklahoma City headquarters. "We're scraping around to figure out where we're going to put folks. It's dangerous."

Allbaugh said he's currently negotiating with the owners of two empty private prisons in Oklahoma about lease or lease-purchase options, but a $1 billion hole in the state budget means additional funding for housing inmates is unlikely.

The Board of Corrections hired Allbaugh on a temporary basis after former director Robert Patton departed after less than two years amid a multicounty grand jury investigation into a series of problematic lethal injections. Allbaugh, who was living in Austin, Texas, said he and his wife have been looking for an opportunity to return to Oklahoma and that he's interested in taking the job full time.

"I'm all about doing things, making things happen," he said. "Talk is cheap, and this is an agency that has been talked about for years. Very little improvement has been done. There are great people here. Their heart's in right place."

Allbaugh's lack of direct experience in corrections isn't much of a concern to former state Rep. Gus Blackwell, who heads a group that represents state prison workers.

"They've been favorably impressed that he's been to all these facilities in less than a month," said Blackwell, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. "He goes in there to talk to the officers. He hears what they have to say."

Oklahoma has about 28,000 inmates in both state and private facilities, and state prisons are at 122 percent of capacity, Allbaugh said. Over the last decade, day rooms and gymnasiums at prisons across the state have been converted into housing units packed with bunk beds. Figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reviewed last year by The Associated Press show Oklahoma had the highest rate of prison homicides in the nation between 2001 and 2012, with state inmates killed at a rate more than three times the national average.

"We are staffed so low right now, particularly with correctional officers, that should there be an incident, I'm concerned that we couldn't respond appropriately," Allbaugh said. "And that's a public safety concern."

While all executions are on hold in Oklahoma amid the grand jury probe into how the wrong lethal injection drug was delivered for the last two executions, Allbaugh said prison officials are continuing to train on the protocols. A death penalty supporter, he said he has confidence in the staff's ability to carry out executions humanely and properly.

"The citizens of Oklahoma can be assured that we will continue refining our protocols, improving upon them and when the time comes, they can be confident that any execution going forward will be done as actually intended," he said.

Allbaugh was a longtime political operative in Oklahoma who headed up George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign in 1994 and was named chief of staff when Bush was elected governor. He then managed Bush's presidential campaign in 2000, including overseeing the Florida recount that Allbaugh described as "the worst 36 days of my life," before being appointed to head FEMA.

He served in the FEMA role from 2001 to 2003.

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