The fears of Senate Democrats were realized last night when the crisis facing Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) went beyond prison walls as a convicted murderer and serial rapist escaped from the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. According to news reports, the pair kidnapped an innocent woman and stole a vehicle to make their escape.
“Senate Democrats have begged and pleaded with Speaker Hiett and his Republican counterparts to come back to special session and stop ignoring this very important public safety issue,” Senator Corn, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary said. “More than seven weeks after the Senate passed an emergency appropriation in a special session to add more correctional officers to our prisons, the bill is collecting dust in the House, and now the violence has gone beyond prison walls and into Oklahoma communities.”
Corn said according to prison officials, the escape took place during the evening shift where the ratio of correctional officers was one to 197. Corn also said it is worth noting that the Joseph Harp Correctional Center is down 37 correctional officers, which could lead to the potential of more prison escapes occurring in the near future. Each time a prisoner escapes beyond prison walls, hardened criminals are on the streets of communities throughout Oklahoma.
“All summer long Senate Democrats have feared this sort of thing would happen if the Republicans continued their “wait until next year” approach to public safety,” Corn said. “Now our fears have unfortunately come true and there are two men who have raped and murdered Oklahomans out on the streets.”
Corn questioned again today what exactly it was going to take to make Republican Speaker of the House Todd Hiett understand there is a crisis in the prisons across Oklahoma.
“The Speaker needs to admit he was wrong when he refused to call the House back and said the matter could ‘wait until next year’,” the senator said. “Speaker Hiett should make this his top priority and do what it takes to keep Oklahomans safe.”
On August 31, the Senate passed a bill that would have added 150 correctional officers to Oklahoma prisons and increased the starting pay for correctional officers from $20,000 to $24,000 annually.
After the Senate met in special session to approve the bill, Republican Senator Glenn Coffee, who voted for the bill, called the special session “meaningless” and the actions of the Senate Democrats “theatrics and a political sideshow.”
“Senator Coffee need only look to his own party when he uses the term ‘meaningless.’ When House Republicans refused to come back to the Capitol to approve an emergency appropriations, their actions – or lack there of – were certainly meaningless’,” Corn said. “The Senate acted in a timely fashion to make Oklahomans safe, and our actions were far from meaningless. If Republicans in the House would have showed up to do the job their constituents elected them to do, perhaps we could have avoided the prison escape and kidnapping that occurred last night in Lexington.”
Corn said the House can still take up the bill in special session, and called on Speaker Hiett to act immediately to address these public safety issues.
“It’s simply the right thing to do for the public safety of all Oklahomans,” Corn said. “Doing otherwise and waiting until next year is irresponsible and could put lives in jeopardy.