Consensus in Northwest Oklahoma right now is, “We’re not going down without a fight.”
State Sen. Casey Murdock said until they padlock the door on William S. Key Correctional Center, it’s not over for him.
“The ripple effect of this closure is going to affect at least two, if not three counties,” Murdock said. “The workers there live in Ellis County, Harper County and Woodward County.
The Department of Corrections said Wednesday it was closing the minimum security prison in Fort Supply by the end of the year, affecting 140 employees and moving prisoners to other minimum security facilities across the state.
Murdock said the effect on the Harper County Community Hospital in Buffalo, who has a contract caring for the prisoners, is going to hurt.
“Unfortunately, DOC (Department of Corrections) chose not to include me or other representatives from this area in those discussions,” said Rep. Kenton Patzkowsky (District 61). “The facility itself is in Representative Carl Newton’s district, however, the City of Fort Supply is within District 61 and many of the employees of the prison live in my district or other neighboring districts.”
Buffalo Economic Development Director James Leonard started informing people as soon as he was made aware of the situation.
“I just received word from an employee at William S. Key in (Fort) Supply. Employees are losing their jobs and Key will be closing in 90 days,” Leonard sent out in an email immediately upon hearing the news. “And it all started from there. I mean, there's a lot of folks. Fort Supply is not on their own. Buffalo is not on our own. There's a lot of folks in our corner.”
Leonard is also chairman of the Northwest Oklahoma Alliance (NwOA) and a member of the Friends of Historic Fort Supply and Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum. He believes William S. Key is a tremendous asset for not only Northwest Oklahoma, but for other parts of the state.
“Following hearing about the closure, I was told the governor's office knew nothing about it. And I don't buy that,” Leonard said. “Obviously we are all railing at this horrible decision… We're not going down without a fight.”
According to DOC Director Scott Crow, the closure comes at the end of a long review process. Apparently this process did not include lawmakers from the area.
“We didn't see this coming, had absolutely no hint whatsoever. So, it's time to get busy,” said District 59 Rep. Mike Dobrinski. “Obviously, if any of us would have been aware of this or had any inkling of this, we would have mentioned it on Monday when we were out there.”
Patzkowsky, Rep. Carl Newton (District 58) and Murdock all attended Woodward Chamber of Commerce legislative luncheon with Dobrinski.
“This obviously was not anything that the legislature was aware of because we had appropriated (funds) for continued operations,” Dobrinski said. “It is a bad deal and we need to do anything and everything we possibly can to try and turn things around.”
Patzkowsky said he is disheartened by all the calls and emails his office is receiving from families in Fort Supply.
“This will result in the loss of over 150 jobs in Northwest Oklahoma and potentially the loss of entire families from the area, if not the state, as these individuals look to find new positions,” Patzkowsky said. “I am concerned about the ripple effect this will have on the economy for the area.”
The facility has been a major employer for the area, according to Patzkowsky.
“Jobs are scarce in rural Oklahoma, and finding comparable employment will be difficult, if not impossible, in the area,” Patzkowsky said. “I am struggling to see why we build new facilities or pour money into other areas of the state, but the Panhandle continues to only see state resources lost.”
Patzkowsky has contacted the Department of Corrections to see what resources are being provided to the employees soon to be without jobs. He is hopeful his office can team up with the executive branch and the Department of Commerce to find additional resources for displaced employees and the region.
“I want to thank each of these workers for their service and dedication to our state over the years,” Patzkowsky said. “Know that this decision speaks not of your character, service, or our gratitude. I appreciate you and Northwest Oklahoma appreciates you.”
The closing came as a surprise to Oklahoma Corrections Professionals (OCP) Executive Director Bobby Cleveland. OCP is a statewide association for employees of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and the Pardon and Parole Board.
“This is a shocker for the community,” Cleveland said. “The $8 million in revenue cannot be replaced.”
The corrections department estimates repairs upwards to $35 million to get William S. Key updated and that does not include the roof, according to Cleveland.
“I know the prison needs a lot of repairs because DOC has not keep up the repairs over the years,” Cleveland said. “DOC should pay moving costs and offer some type of mileage for the ones who will be commuting. Treat the employees fair.”
Leaonard shared frustration on the neglect William S. Key has received from the DOC.
“I've been told in the past that William S. Key was the most efficient facility,” Leonard said. “It does not make sense to me to give millions of dollars to proven unsuccessful private prisons, when they could have invested those millions in their own facility that is proven efficient.”
Dobrinski said he has had several constituents share concerns with the lack of mental health facilities and treatment housing programs in the state.
“If the DOC doesn't feel the need for that facility anymore, maybe the State Department of Health needs to take a look at some type of program there,” Dobrinski suggested. “Maybe that is a better option, as opposed to a DOC facility.”
According to Dobrinski, all options are on the table right now.
“Whatever we can do to maintain employment and a facility out there,” Dobrinski said. “We don't have enough state operations and programs in our part of the state. We certainly can't afford to give up what we have.”
While these employees would have the option to transfer to another facility, this could mean families would have to move and uproot their lives. All this is for a closure Murdock doesn’t believe is necessary.
“I'm going to continue to fight,” Murdock said. “I'm going to fight and try to try to save it.”
Murdock said he’s urging all citizens across Senate District 27 to call or write to the governor and voice their support to keep the William S. Key Correctional Center open.
“It’s critical that we band together and let the governor know how important this facility is to Northwest Oklahoma,” Murdock said. “Oklahoma cannot move forward if we leave our rural communities behind. Rural Oklahoma is the backbone of our state, and it’s time we fight to ensure our communities can thrive with adequate workplaces and job opportunities for all. We are just now emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, and we cannot shut down main economic drivers for communities and expect to bounce back.”