Kate Barnard - Oklahoma's First Commissioner of Charities and Corrections
Barnard had received numerous complaints about the treatment of inmates and the general conditions at the Kansas Penitentiary. Soon after she assumed her official duties she visited the penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, in August of 1908. She arrived unannounced and, joining other sightseers, paid the normal admittance fee of 50 cents for a guided group tour of the prison and was shown the "showplaces of the institution." After the tour, she identified herself and requested that she be allowed to conduct a thorough inspection. The warden and Kansas Board of Prison Control challenged her authority to inspect their prison, but finally allowed her full access to the facility under the watchful eye of the warden. She completed her inspection and returned to Oklahoma to write her report. She made her report public in December 1908, and demanded a full investigation.
She charged the Kansas authorities with corruption, brutality, and graft in their operation of the prison. Food conditions were terrible, she said, with the prisoners being fed only one meal a day and lower rations than the penitentiaries in Wisconsin and at Leavenworth, Kansas. Kate documented in her report that Kansas contracted the men to private individuals for 50 cents a day and received an additional 40 cents a day from Oklahoma, but spent only 11 cents a day for food.
Kate found that from 1905 to 1908, 60 boys had been sent to the Lansing Penitentiary and many of these were under 16 years of age. This was a clear violation of the contract which stated that "no convict shall be less than 16 years of age." This condition not only gave clear legal and moral grounds for terminating the contract, it also provided Kate with ammunition in her later attempt to establish state industry schools for youngsters in trouble with the law.
Barnard recommended, to the Governor and the legislators of Oklahoma, that all inmates be transferred immediately from Lansing to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, until Oklahoma could build its own penitentiary.
*Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society Photo Archives (photo no. 106)
Conditions at Lansing Cause Public Outcry
The report on the conditions at Lansing brought about a public outcry to bring the prisoners back to Oklahoma. The official report of the investigation of the Lansing Prison was released only a few days after Governor Haskell informed the legislature that the contract with Kansas was to expire within three weeks. The report shocked the legislature into action and it authorized the movement of Oklahoma’s prisoners to McAlester, Oklahoma. After years of infighting, lethargy, and purposeful delay in dealing with the question of convict needs, the legislature finally moved to rectify the situation at Lansing. The legislature appropriated an initial $850,000 to construct the penitentiary.
Oklahoma Corrections Act of 1967
Finally, January 10, 1967, brought the historic announcement from Governor Dewey F. Bartlett in his Legislative address, when he said:
"I have prepared for introduction, today, a bill creating a new Department of Corrections. This bill has been prepared after consultation with leaders of both Houses of the Legislature. It is a joint recommendation of your leadership and the administration. Briefly, this bill provides for the creation of a new State Corrections Department, consisting of a State Board of Corrections, and State Director of Corrections, and three divisions: A Division of Institutions, a Division of Probation and Parole, and a Division of Inspection. The Division of Inspection will perform duties of the present Charities and Corrections Department."
On May 8, 1967, the legislature passed the Oklahoma Corrections Act of 1967. House Bill 566 created the seven-member Board of Corrections, with one member from each of the state’s congressional districts and a seventh member appointed at large.