As Oklahoma’s incarceration rate soared in the 1990s, the private prison industry saw a business opportunity. The Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, struck a deal with state officials and opened a prison in 1996. By 1998, two more were operating. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) has depended on these private prisons to relieve overcrowding and to house some of the state’s most dangerous offenders. A recent DOC decision and prison population trends suggest Oklahoma may not rely on private prisons forever, reports Oklahoma Watch. A DOC board voted July 15 to vacate the medium-security Cimarron Correctional Facility, with 1,650 inmates. The only two remaining private prisons house 3,750 inmates, 16.7 percent of the total.
Oklahoma’s prison population has dropped 17.9 percent since July 2018. The two major players in the private corrections industry, The Geo Group and CoreCivic, have used similar business models since the early 1980s. State and federal governments agree to pay the companies a fixed, daily rate per inmate. The state must maintain a certain occupancy level, usually between 80 percent and 100 percent. Reform advocates have long decried private prisons, saying their for-profit model causes them to cut corners on inmate programs and safety. Academic and government funded studies support the claim that state facilities are better run than private prisons. John Carl, a criminology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said private prisons tend to restrict inmate movement and offer fewer programs than state-run facilities. As lock downs drag on, tempers rise. In 2017, 28 states used private prisons to house state inmates. Last year, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill that will end the state’s use of private prisons by 2022. Five months later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill barring new contracts with private prisons. The law will phase out all private prisons in the state by 2028.