Empty, western Oklahoma town faces an uncertain future
July 18, 2021
HINTON-When the price of crude oil nosedived in the mid-1980s, this rural community halfway between El Reno and Weatherford was in trouble.
Oil rig workers, once flush with cash and eager to spend it at downtown shops and cafés, started leaving in droves. Hinton's population dropped 14% from 1980 to 1990, U.S. Census data shows.
"We had more business than we could take care of, with people ordering telephone lines out to these well sites," said Kenneth Doughty, a lifelong Hinton resident and president of Xtreme Services, the town's telecommunications provider. "Then all of a sudden it went away."
Unnerved by the oil industry collapse, city leaders in 1987 formed the Hinton Economic Development Authority, a public trust tasked with attracting new businesses and diversifying the local economy.
After learning that Mustang's town council rejected a construction proposal from a private prison company, the trust did some research and grew convinced that a correctional facility could help bring both jobs and tax revenue back to Hinton.
Kenneth Doughty, president of Xstream services, a phone, television and internet provider for Hinton and surrounding towns, was a key member of the Hinton Economic Development Authority formed in 1987. He said the GEO Great Plains Correctional Facility has seen fluctuations in its populations before and expects it will be used again, it's only a matter of when. (Lionel Ramos/ Oklahoma Watch)
"We started talking to people at the coffee shops and different places and got a lot of people thinking, yeah, that might be a pretty good idea," said Doughty, now 81 years old.
In 1989 the trust issued public bonds to fund construction of a 500-bed prison two miles south of downtown. Three years later, the Great Plains Correctional Facility was open and filled with federal minimum-security prisoners.
The prison has since housed tens of thousands of state and federal prisoners and generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the town of Hinton. The G.E.O. Group, a private corrections company that leases the prison from the town and manages its operations, added 1,400 beds to the facility in 2008, which in turn created more jobs and higher utility bills.
As the prison has expanded, so has Hinton. The town's population, bolstered by prisoners who are counted as residents of the city where they are incarcerated, nearly tripled from 1,233 in 1990 to 3,219 in 2019.
On the north side of Hinton along Interstate 40, construction of a Love's truck stop, two casinos and a Chevy dealership were made possible after the city used money generated from the prison to expand water line access. Closer to downtown, the town used prison revenue to invest in a new fire station and historical museum.
But with the stroke of a pen this year, Hinton's prospects for growth took a significant hit.
On Jan. 26 President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to not renew private prison contracts. The Great Plains prison, which was vacated in late May as a result of the order, most recently housed non-U.S. citizens serving out the last year or two of their federal prison sentences.
At the time of the executive order there were about 14,000 federal prisoners, or 9% of the total federal prison population, housed in 11 private prisons. The order applies only to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, meaning that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can continue to use private immigration detention facilities.
"This is the first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration that is less humane and safe, studies show," Biden said in a news conference announcing the executive order. "It is just the beginning in my administration's plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system."
Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, as well as Rep. Frank Lucas, sent a letter to Biden on April 15 asking him to reconsider his order phasing out all federal private prisons because it would significantly affect Hinton's economy. Their request fell on deaf ears.
Shanon Pack, Hinton's town administrator, said he and other city leaders started preparing for the worst immediately after Biden issued the executive order. Over the past six and a half years, the G.E.O. Group has paid Hinton about $60,000 per month in utility fees and $1.25 per day per prisoner housed at the facility. The city received its final payments last month.
Shanon Pack came to Hinton as a police officer at 23-years-old and moved up to the dual role of Town Administrator and Police Chief. Lack of funds from the prison closing means fewer police officers in Hinton and Pack having to resign as chief. (Lionel Ramos/Oklahoma Watch)
"I remember when we first learned of that executive order, just realizing how Hinton was going to be greatly affected by it, not just the prison but the whole town," Pack said, adding that Hinton will lose about $1.5 million in annual revenue with the prison empty.
To make up for the lost revenue, Pack said the town won't fill two vacant positions in its police department. Local businesses will likely have to start making cuts as many of the prison's 230 former employees move away, dine and shop elsewhere, Pack said.
"There's nobody I've talked to that's excited about the prison closing," he said. "Everyone's concerned about it."
Private Prisons Face Heightened Scrutiny
As new mandatory minimum sentencing laws took effect and drove up demand for prison beds in the 1980s, startup private corrections companies such as CoreCivic and the G.E.O. Group offered to take some of the burden off the federal and state governments.
Their business strategy proved effective. By the late 1990s one in 10 rural counties was home to a correctional facility. A new prison, hundreds of them privately owned and operated, was opening every 15 days.
While the prison boom brought jobs to economically depressed areas and padded city budgets, it also sparked widespread criticism among justice reform advocates and researchers. Critics of private prisons argue that creating a financial incentive to lock more people up is unethical and that private facilities are more likely to cut corners on staffing, prisoner programs and medical care as they seek to profit. The G.E.O. Group, a publicly traded company, generated $2.47 billion in revenue and $166 million in net income in 2019.
Critics' suspicions were confirmed in a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report that found federal contract prisons were more dangerous and less secure than comparable government-owned and operated facilities. The report prompted former President Barack Obama to issue an executive order in August 2016 phasing out some private prison use, which the Trump administration rescinded six months later.
Public condemnation of the private prison industry has also ramped up in recent years. At least 12 2020 Democratic presidential candidates publicly declared they would abolish federal private prisons if elected and incentivize states to do the same. In the second half of 2019, several major U.S. banks including Bank of America and Wells Fargo announced they would stop financing private prison companies.
The blanket criticism of private prisons doesn't add up for Hinton city leaders and residents, who argue the Great Plains facility was run just as well as, if not better than, any public facility. To work at the prison, corrections officers had to pass an extensive background examination that included a credit check. No federal prisoners escaped from the facility from the time it was repopulated in 2014 to when it closed.
"I don't think we've ever had any issues with the prison as far as a negative impact on the town and the community," said Jason Garner, head of the Hinton Economic Development Authority. "Before COVID they would hold a town meeting every quarter and tell us how they were training the inmates out there and educating them. It was a real positive vibe out there."
Biden's executive order drew mixed responses from criminal justice policy experts, many of whom said the move was a step in the right direction but mostly symbolic.
The federal prison population has dropped 27% over the past seven years, making such a decision easier from a logistical perspective. In addition, the experts noted that public prisons typically outsource their food and telecommunications services to private companies that make billions from incarceration.
"The standard distinction people try to draw between public and private prisons is that there is something fundamentally wrong about profiting from putting people in cages," wrote John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in prisons and criminal law, in a February Washington Post editorial. "The catch? Public prisons are 'profiting,' too, and offer benefits to the people responsible for running them and the communities where they are located in ways that may not be as immediately obvious but are often even more significant."
Fewer Prisoners, Dwindling Demand
This isn't the first time the Great Plains Correctional Facility has sat empty.
In 2010 the Arizona Department of Corrections moved 1,700 of its prisoners out of the prison after expanding its in-state bed space. The prison remained vacant for more than four years until The G.E.O. Group and the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to a contract in late 2014.
Pack and Garner said that the idle period has given the city some idea of what to expect as it starts to lose revenue from the prison. In the meantime, they said the G.E.O. Group will continue to maintain the facility and pitch it to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and other government agencies.
Unlike the federal government, states remain free to enter into private prison contracts. As of 2019, 30 states housed some of their prisoners at private prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. About 20% of Oklahoma's state prison population is housed at two medium-to-maximum security private prisons. However, demand for prison bed space has dropped significantly over the past five years as the federal government and states enact justice reforms.
California, which once relied on out-of-state facilities in places such as Sayre to relieve its prison overcrowding, has vowed to end its reliance on private prisons by 2028. In Connecticut, where the prison population has dropped by more than half since 2008, former correctional facilities are now home to movie studios and homeless shelters.
In Oklahoma, the state prison population has dropped 17.5% over the past two years as justice reforms take effect and the COVID-19 pandemic continues in many court cases. The state prison system was operating at 86% capacity on June 28, down from 105% in June 2019.
Last month the state corrections department announced plans to close the dilapidated William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply, a decision officials say they made in part because demand for minimum-security prison beds has dropped significantly.
A declining state prison population doesn't mean the Great Plains facility won't be repopulated. The corrections department could opt to close some of its older facilities, many of which weren't originally built as prisons, and move those prisoners and staff to Hinton. If the state went that route, it could elect to lease and operate the facility itself, as it does with the CoreCivic-owned North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre.
Finding a new government partner could take just a couple of weeks or never happen at all, case studies from two other rural Oklahoma private prisons show.
Cushing city leaders feared economic disaster after the state announced plans to vacate the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a 1,400-bed medium-security prison owned and operated by CoreCivic. Weeks after state prisoners were transferred out, CoreCivic announced it had agreed to a three-year contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house federal prisoners awaiting sentencing or transfer to another correctional facility.
Thirty miles north of Hinton in Watonga, the CoreCivic-owned and operated Diamondback Correctional Facility lost its Arizona prisoners in 2010 and has never reopened. As a result, the city's population dropped 44% from 2010 to 2019.
'I Don't Know That We'll Thrive'
The prison's closure hasn't stopped life in Hinton. The town's two casinos bring in motorists and truck drivers traveling cross country on Interstate 40. Across the street from the prison, the Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park is a draw for hikers, campers and bicyclists from across the state.
But if Hinton's largest employer and revenue generator doesn't return, Doughty envisions a reality similar to what the town faced 35 years ago.
"I think we'll survive, but I don't know that we'll thrive," he said. "The community has always promoted any kind of business and any kind of development. We did that before the prison and will do it after the prison. We just won't have as much money to help increase those possibilities of development in the future."
Misty Berg, who owns a thrift store along Main Street, has lived in Hinton for 25 years. She said two of her friends who worked at the prison have already moved away in search of new employment.
Berg worries that most of the town's residents will soon be forced to accept either a long commute or a move to a more urban area.
"The reality is, this sucks," Berg said. "A lot of people out here are out of jobs and it's horrible. To me it's something that Hinton really needed and should have stayed open."
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. The organization's website is at http://www.oklahomawatch.org.