Oklahoma Governor Commutes 450 Sentences to Reduce Prison Overcrowding

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt greets guests in 2018 at Java 39 coffeehouse in Bethany. (AP Photo/Sean Murphy)

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Bowing to public pressure, Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt issued commutations late Friday for 452 inmates to blunt the spread of Covid-19 in state prisons and to ease overcrowding.

Approximately 404 of the inmates were approved for time served and will be released on April 26. The majority of the 349 offenders are drug offenders, while 22 committed property crimes.

“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 written statement. “In these unprecedented times, we must take action while safeguarding our Department of Corrections staff, inmate population and the public … The Department of Health is also working with the Department of Corrections to provide Covid-19 tests to anyone who needs one.”

Stitt’s order comes one week after eight nonprofit organizations asked him to approve 283 commutations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Policy Institute and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. They said the 283 commutations have been approved since December by the state Pardon and Parole Board, but Stitt had yet to sign them.

“Oklahoma’s prisons are at 108 percent capacity, and a virus like COVID-19 can easily overwhelm the state’s overcrowded prisons where incarcerated people have less access to basic hygiene items, cannot social distance, and many areas are communal,” the group said on April 2. “Rural hospitals stand to suffer the most from these conditions. Fifty Oklahoma counties, largely in rural areas, have no ICU beds.”

Nicole McAfee, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, applauded Stitt’s order Saturday, saying it “is a welcome relief to the loved ones who have waited for weeks or months as commutation recommendations sat on the Governor’s desk, fearful of what the pandemic could mean for the health of people they care for.”

The ACLU of Oklahoma sent Stitt a draft executive order on March 23 with recommendations for measures it wished to see enacted, including the commutation of sentences for inmates who are parole eligible or will be in two years and who have a condition including being 55 years of age or older, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or being immuno-compromised.

Kris Steele, Director for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, applauded Stitt’s “leadership and his actions” in releasing the inmates.

“Our state’s prison population, our correctional staff and our rural hospitals are especially vulnerable during this health crisis,” Steele said late Friday. “I truly believe the actions taken today will save lives, reconnect families and ultimately make our state a safer place.”

Stitt recommended the released inmates stay in self-quarantine for 14 days if they are leaving a prison with known coronavirus cases.

Department of Corrections officials announced on April 7 that five agency staff and one inmate have tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate is located at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester. None of the staff members who tested positive are based at that prison.

“Saturday, the state health department provided masks for all inmates and staff,” the Department of Corrections said at the time. “Sunday, ODOC ordered all prisons to secure inmates in their cells while allowing access to necessary services, a move to protect the health of inmates and staff – not intended as a disciplinary measure. Facility staff will deliver food, medicine, and any other necessities to inmates to limit group gatherings and enhance social distancing.”

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