Bonnie, Frannie & Linda RIP
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has been going back to the well of the Oklahoma Legislature for supplemental appropriations every year as long as I can remember and I have been locked up for almost a decade. Every year the legislature approves the necessary extra millions to keep Oklahoma’s mass imprisonment binge solvent. Due to the economic downturn, however, the funds are no longer available and the mandate to fund Oklahoma’s prisons is no longer compelling to the cash-strapped legislature. According to an article in the August 9, 2010, edition of The Oklahoman, the 2011 fiscal year budget is $462 million, down from $503 million in 2010 and the extra $40 million being sought in February 2011 will probably be denied despite the fact that last fiscal year had a net offender growth of 721 inmates and the Department of Corrections stays at 99% capacity.
Despite strongly worded suggestions from the Board of Corrections to the state legislature to cut its prison population, no sentencing reform or early release of prisoners to ease the budget crunch is in the offing. Instead, the Department of Corrections must tighten its belt to an extraordinary degree. The most recent cuts that affect offender welfare and morale are cuts in visitation, allegedly due to employee furloughs. Visitation takes place on weekends when furloughed employees would be off anyway, but it is an ingenious ploy to cause political outrage among the friends and families of offenders. It puts them in the unenviable position of unwittingly perpetuating mass imprisonment by requesting more money be devoted to corrections in order to have visitation restored and limited access to their loved ones in prison. If supplemental appropriations are not forthcoming, visitation days a month that currently remain have been reduced to a chaotic circus. Never ideal, the visiting room is now even more overcrowded, noisy and filthy. Visitors have to wait up to hours in all weather to get in and, once in, finding seats is a nightmare. Entire families sometimes have to visit sitting on the floor.
Other cuts include such mundane and necessary items as milk and toilet paper. Here at Mabel Bassett, female offenders now receive only one roll of toilet paper a week instead of two, even if they are indigent, as if the state’s budget crisis suddenly slashes one’s need to relieve oneself in half. Offender pay was cut nearly in half last year, the top gang pay rate now only nets $9 a month and one can easily spend half of that princely sum on supplemental toilet paper. The food budget has been cut so much that the kitchen no longer even pretends to adhere to the master menu prepared by a registered dietician to ensure offenders get the minimum nutritional requirements. The menu calls for a cup of milk to be served to each offender at breakfast and that happens barely half the time despite DOC not having deleted milk from the menu – yet.
All of this may strike the average reader as petty whining. After all most offenders violated society’s laws and a modicum of suffering is more than appropriate. Touché, and yet offender morale impacts the safety of correctional officers and society at large as 95% will eventually be released, the majority of whom will be even more bitter and disenfranchised than they were when they committed their crimes. Rehabilitative programs are the first casualties when budgets wither, even before visitation, milk, and toilet paper. We live in a warehouse full of ill will and dysfunction and most of us will emerge worse for wear.
Where are Bonnie, Frannie, and Linda in all this? They all died here at Mabel Bassett in the last few years, despite being perfect candidates for medical parole in the existing system. That’s right, even without legislative reform, they could have been released at a savings of several hundred thousands of dollars. All three were nonviolent drug offenders serving obscenely lengthy sentences, elderly, ill, and unlikely to reoffend if released (hell, unlikely even to live if released). The bureaucratic, understated nightmare that is Mabel Bassett was not proactive enough to facilitate their releases despite parole being one of the few remaining ways to ease overcrowding in the current system. Be that as it may, the parole board’s administrative support staff is also stretched to the limits, so who knows if that overburdened system could have processed their medical paroles speedily enough that they would not have died in prison? Perhaps not. All I know for sure is that all three of those ladies were sweet-natured human beings who posed no risk to society and did not deserve to spend their few remaining days in this hellhole.