Oklahoma Prisons

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An attorney for an Oklahoma death row inmate testified Wednesday that he has found new potential witnesses who might be able to help his client’s case but who would be prevented from testifying by a state law because his client’s appeals have been exhausted. 

Attorney Don Knight, who represents death row inmate Richard Glossip, testified before the House Public Safety Committee during a hearing about the future of the death penalty in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s new leader said Monday he’s spent the past few weeks making a plan to tackle a backlog of commutation requests.

Executive Director Tom Bates said he expects there will be some training soon to help sort through around 3,000 applications that have built up as the board has taken up smaller dockets because of concerns about the review process.

"The whole purpose of this is to divide these up into some manageable buckets by objective criteria that allows us to help you as a aboard prioritize these pending applications," Bates said.

Chris Polansky / KWGS News

Citing continued spread of COVID-19, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said Thursday that visitation is suspended at all state correctional facilities.

"This unfortunate, albeit necessary, action quells a potential source for viral infection and spread," the agency said in a statement.

Chris Polansky / KWGS News

In response to growing numbers of both COVID-19 infections and deaths possibly caused by the virus across its prison system, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced Tuesday new measures meant to get outbreaks under control.

"Every time I learn of a new case, it really makes me sick," said Scott Crow, director of the agency, at a press conference with Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Capitol, "because this is extremely important."

"A positive case makes me sick, but an inmate death even makes me sicker," Crow said.

Facebook / Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported Wednesday that a second woman incarcerated at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft has died, possibly of COVID-19.

The agency said Wednesday it was unable to confirm her identity due to medical privacy laws, but family members, inmate advocates and a cosmetology program for incarcerated women identify her as Vernita Watts, 70. Watts' status in the DOC's publicly available inmate database was changed from "ACTIVE" to "INACTIVE" at some point on Wednesday or Thursday.

Chris Polansky / KWGS News

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced Monday another major coronavirus outbreak at one of its facilities, a prison for men in Vinita.

Chris Polansky / KWGS News

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections on Thursday reported the death of a second inmate who tested positive for COVID-19.

The male inmate from Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington was admitted to an Oklahoma City hospital more than a week ago with COVID-19-related symptoms and died on Wednesday, the agency reported. The man’s name was not released.

In a statement, DOC said, "The man had signed a do not resuscitate directive and requested the hospital withdraw all treatment."

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The Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, the state's juvenile justice agency, has launched a training program for its staff and outside law enforcement agencies to "improve interaction and outcomes with youth who are minorities."

"We know that our own data shows over-representation of children of color in Oklahoma's juvenile justice system," said the agency's interim executive director, Rachel Holt, in a press release.

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The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said its staff is working hard and touted its achievements over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as more than 1600 inmates have been infected with the novel coronavirus.

"In collaboration with the health department, we have been able to accomplish the unaccomplishable, I believe, from when we first started dealing with the virus," said Millicent Embry-Newton, DOC's Offender Services Director.

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Hundreds more women incarcerated at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft have tested positive for COVID-19 since the state initially reported a major outbreak there last week.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said that, as of noon on Thursday, 721 women had active cases of the disesase caused by the novel coronavirus, with three hospitalized. The facility houses around 900. Eddie Warrior is a minimum-security facility, with open dormitory-style housing units.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

More than 500 people incarcerated at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility, a minimum-security women's state prison in Muskogee County, have tested positive for COVID-19, an outbreak causing the Muskogee area's infection data to soar.

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The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is set to ease up on its recent approach to commutations, at least temporarily.

With more than 2,700 pending applications, the agency had scheduled monthly dockets with 425 cases through March 2021, but board members would like to see dockets in the 150-case range for a couple of months after potential issues came to light.

Concerns include district attorney notifications not being made, misconduct reports not coming over from the Department of Corrections and information like past convictions missing from files.

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An initiative petition seeking to end the use of sentence enhancements for repeat, nonviolent offenses is eligible for Oklahoma’s November ballot.

State Question 805 cleared a 10-day period without being challenged. Supporters gathered around 260,000 signatures and had more than 248,000 counted, well in excess of the roughly 178,000 required.

Yes on 805 President Sarah Edwards said Oklahomans in prison for nonviolent offenses serve sentences 70% to 80% longer than prisoners in other states, and enhancements may be a driver of that disparity.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections cancelled visitation at all state prisons over the weekend following an outbreak at the Lexington Correctional Center, where 87 inmates inside one housing unit tested positive in the last 24 hours. All of the inmates reported no symptoms prior to testing and were placed in isolation, the agency said in a press release.

OK.gov

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has announced plans to move about 1,400 inmates out of a medium-security private prison in Cushing that has been the site of some of the state’s worst prison violence in recent years.

The decision announced late Thursday is part of a cost-cutting move as a result of a $24 million budget cut, which is about 4.4% of the agency’s annual budget, said DOC spokesman Justin Wolf.

A conservative think tank is making the case for a ballot initiative that would do away with repeat offender sentence enhancements for nonviolent crimes.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found enhancements were applied 80% of the time, despite district attorneys saying they’re used selectively. OCPA Executive Vice President Trent England said people convicted of petty crime or struggling with addiction shouldn’t go to prison for decades.

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A group seeking to reduce Oklahoma’s high prison incarceration rate delivered more than 260,000 signatures to the state on Monday as part of its effort to get a state question on the ballot.

Volunteers with Yes on 805 delivered the boxes to the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office. They need about 178,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify the question for a statewide ballot. The governor will set the date of the election once the signatures have been counted.

The Yes on 805 campaign on Friday presented its case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in a request to force the Secretary of State’s office to accept signatures to put a sentencing reform state question on the ballot.

The campaign filed a writ of mandamus last week asking the court to require its signatures be accepted in time to place State Question 805 on a 2020 ballot.

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The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend special medical parole for 12 inmates determined to be at elevated risk from the coronavirus pandemic.

At a virtual meeting of the board on Wednesday morning, Steven Bickley, the body's executive director, explained how the specific inmates ended up on the docket. 

"The agency received a letter from [Oklahoma Department of Corrections] Director [Scott] Crow on Friday, May 1st, recommending 14 inmates for medical parole," Bickley said. "That is authorized by him under statute."

Oklahoma must give death row prisoners suing the state more information about a new lethal injection protocol released in February.

Judge Stephen Friot of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ordered officials on Tuesday to give the inmates all available information about execution training by June 5 and to update them as changes are made.

The inmates reopened a lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection process after state officials announced the new protocol. Their next filing is due July 6.

State of Oklahoma

An Oklahoma Senate panel advanced on Tuesday the nomination of Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow to hold the job on a permanent basis.

Crow said preparing inmates to successfully re-enter society will be a focus under his leadership. That will build on a transition fair concept proposed by Oklahoma First Lady Sarah Stitt and used before hundreds of inmates were released in a wave of commutations in November to connect them with housing, jobs and other services.

Matt Trotter / KWGS

Governor Kevin Stitt’s office said last week 404 inmates with sentences commuted to time served will be getting out of prison Thursday, but that’s not the case.

According the the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, 111 inmates will be released.

Others are serving time for felonies other than drug or property crimes that have since been reduced to misdemeanors, and discharging those other crimes requires more steps from the parole board, not just those Stitt took Friday.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) — The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says a man who escaped from a minimum security state prison in McAlester has been captured.

The department says 40-year-old Jeremiah Hobbs was arrested Monday following a traffic stop 75 miles away from McAlester in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow.

Hobbs disappeared Thursday from the unfenced Jackie Brannon Correctional Center. The corrections department says a woman identified as Hobbs' girlfriend was also arrested during the traffic stop on a warrant for harboring a fugitive.

There’s a national shortage of the drugs used to treat COVID-19 patients in ICU beds, and a group of out-of-state doctors penned a letter asking Oklahoma to share its supply with local hospitals.

It’s unclear how many people could be treated with Oklahoma’s supply, but the state plans to use two of the drugs listed in the doctors’ letter to put prisoners to death.

The drugs were originally designed for medical use. The doctors say they can be used to subdue Covid-19 patients who need to be hooked up to ventilators.

Updated April 13, 7 p.m. 

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board could speed up the commutation process because of COVID-19.

Executive Director Steven Bickley said during a meeting on Monday they would try to get the turnaround time for commutation applications down to 30 days.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has approved commutations for 452 Oklahoma inmates, with 404 approved to time served and set for release on Thursday.

"We’ve been working diligently with the Pardon and Parole Board to safely reduce the prison population amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stitt said in a statement. "In these unprecedented times, we must take action while safeguarding our Department of Corrections staff, inmate population and the public."

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is up to five agency staff and one inmate who are positive for COVID-19.

Four facility staff members across the state and a probation and parole officer now have the illness; along with an inmate at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center.

DOC's first case of COVID-19 was reported last week, a worker at Joseph Harp Correctional Center.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has ordered all state prisons to secure inmates in their cells to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The DOC said in a news release the step is to protect the health of inmates and staff, not for disciplinary reasons. Inmates will have food and medicine delivered to them. Activities like showering and making phone calls will be done on schedules.

Prison officials called the move "aggressive but necessary."

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) — Four of five inmates who escaped a minimum security prison in southeast Oklahoma were quickly recaptured while the fifth remained at large Monday, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Authorities were searching for Christopher G. Coffey, 29, who was serving a total of 12 years for larceny and a prior escape conviction, according to a DOC news release.

The department said the five escaped late Sunday after breaking out a window on the second floor of the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester.

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