Oklahoma's public school children will ultimately pay the price for Governor Keating's decision to authorize the leasing of more private prisons beds, according to a state legislator.
Senator Frank Shurden is taking exception to last week's action by the Governor that allowed the Department of Corrections to exceed its current budget by at least $8 million and rent more private space without legislative approval.
"Basically, Governor Keating took that money out of our school classrooms and turned it over to a private prison company. Instead of helping our kids get an education, that money is going to pay the room and board of a bunch of convicts and add to the profits of the private prison industry. I think that's a pretty irresponsible way to spend our taxpayers' money," said Senator Shurden.
"How long are parents and educators going to put up with diverting money from classrooms to prisons?"
Last week, the Governor refused to declare an emergency in the state's overcrowded prison system, allowing his appointees on the corrections board to lease from 360 to 720 beds in a Watonga private prison. The emergency order would have allowed non-violent inmates already scheduled for release in the next two months to be released a few weeks early, saving the state millions of dollars.
"Those inmates are going to finish their time in the next couple of weeks anyway so Governor Keating really hasn't done anything to improve public safety by delaying their release for a few days. All the Governor has managed to do is waste $8 million in taxpayer money and kick some cash to the private prison industry in the process. Governor Keating hasn't made our streets any safer, but he has taken money out of the budget pie that could have gone into our public school classrooms," said Senator Shurden.
The Watonga private prison is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. CCA's chief executive officer is J. Michael Quinlan, a friend of Keating's.
Three years ago, Governor Keating tapped Quinlan to conduct an "independent" study of Oklahoma's prison system. Among other things, the CCA executive recommended the expansion of medium security prison space---the same type of beds offered by the Watonga facility and other CCA private prisons in Oklahoma.
"I just think it's pretty ironic that we're leasing a bunch of medium security beds from a friend of the Governor ---the same guy who told us we needed more of those beds when he was supposedly conducting an impartial, unbiased review of our prison system," said Senator Shurden.
Had Quinlan not recommended that a number of minimum security inmates be reclassified as medium security prisoners, Oklahoma's corrections system wouldn't be so heavily reliant on the private prison industry today, according to the Henryetta legislator.
"When we started down this road toward private prisons, a lot of us warned people like Governor Keating that we shouldn't become too reliant on them because it might come back and bite us. Now we've got a situation where the Governor and his appointees have agreed to spend an additional $8 million on private prisons without even bothering to get the approval of the Legislature first," noted Senator Shurden.
"With that action, Governor Keating has said that he wants the first $8 million of any new money to go directly to the private prison industry--not to education, roads or any other pressing state need."
Corrections officials and Governor Keating have indicated they will ask the Legislature for a supplemental appropriation to cover the cost of the private prison beds when lawmakers return in February, but Senator Shurden isn't convinced it is necessary.
"We've almost tripled the prison budget in the past decade and we gave them an increase of another $13 million this year. I think we've given them more than enough money to take care of business," said Senator Shurden.
The lawmaker is hoping Governor Keating will take his criticism to heart, instead of unleashing a series of sound bites and political rhetoric that doesn't address the problem. In the past when his public safety decisions have been questioned, Governor Keating has labeled any critics as "soft on crime."
"I think my record shows that there is no one tougher on crime than Frank Shurden. I've always advocated swift execution for convicted killers and the castration of sex offenders," said Senator Shurden.
"You can be tough on crime and still ask legitimate questions about whether we're getting our money's worth or just throwing it down a rat hole. Governor Keating should ask himself if the private prison industry is more important than our public schools."