More benefits planned for some Oklahoma death row inmates
OKLAHOMA CITY — Some of the 44 death row inmates housed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester will soon be moved from the prison’s maximum-security H-Unit to another unit to give them more benefits and access to the outdoors, the state’s new prisons boss said.
In a letter released by the agency on Thursday, the Department of Corrections’ Interim Executive Director Scott Crow told officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma that the agency plans to move “qualifying inmates” to its less restrictive A-Unit by the end of October. The ACLU had threatened legal action over what it says are potential constitutional violations of the rights of death row inmates, mostly by confining them to their cells for 23 hours per day.
“This move will significantly change their access to natural light and view of the outdoors,” Crow wrote in the Sept. 26 letter to ACLU of Oklahoma staff attorney Megan Lambert. “Furthermore, recreation on A-Unit has direct sunlight and outside air in a fenced rather than walled environment where conversation among inmates is unrestricted.”
Crow says the agency also plans to begin “contact” visitation for some of the moved death row inmates, who are currently allowed only noncontact visits behind Plexiglas and over a telephone.
Lambert said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the new policy, but she is pleased the agency is willing to reconsider how it houses death row inmates.
“One man on H-Unit was crying with happiness, he was so happy that he would be able to hold his grandchild for the first time,” Lambert said. “He wanted to know what it was like to touch a blade of grass again.”
DOC spokesman Matt Elliott declined Thursday to elaborate on the housing changes the agency plans to make, saying Crow preferred to let the letter speak for itself.
In the letter, Crow says the ACLU’s concerns have been the topic of informal discussions within the agency and the broader corrections community.
“If the inmates adjust well to the A-Unit environment, we will assess their suitability for jobs and congregate religious services,” Crow wrote.
Not everyone thinks policy change is a good idea. Randy Lopez, a retired correctional officer who spent nearly 20 years of his career at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, said many death row inmates would be targets of violence from other offenders, particularly those convicted of killing children.
“It’s a bad move,” Lopez said of the new policy. “You put a guy like that in general population, somebody will kill them,” Lopez said.
Lopez referenced the recent case of Anthony Palma, convicted of murder in the 1997 disappearance of his 8-year-old neighbor, who was found beaten and strangled to death in his cell at OSP earlier this year.