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About and History
The Legislature of the Oklahoma Territory authorized the Governor to contract with the State of Kansas for the incarceration and care of Oklahoma’s convicted criminals. The contracts were signed by the Territorial Governor and the warden of the Kansas Penitentiary and provided for the incarceration of Oklahoma’s criminal inmates who had been sentenced to incarceration for one year or more. For 25 cents per day, per inmate, Kansas provided "food, clothing, bedding, and medical treatment" for the inmates. This contractual arrangement served the needs of Oklahoma during its territorial days. There were numerous attempts by the Territorial Council to get a penitentiary bill passed, but the various governors never signed them into law.
Rising costs and rising populations forced some Oklahoma officials to question the viability of continuing the contracts with Kansas for the incarceration of inmates. An 1899 report to the Governor indicated that the inmate population had reached a new high of 179 for the previous quarter. This growth, plus the increased rate per inmate, resulted in suggesting that the territory’s prisoners be cared for within the territory and that transportation costs be paid by the county where the conviction occurred. This suggestion never materialized.
Four months into his administration, the first Governor of the state of Oklahoma, Charles N. Haskell (1907-1911), recommended that the legislature appropriate funds to build a penitentiary and reform school in the new state. The legislature did not respond and three weeks before the first session recessed for the summer he sent a special message to both houses. He argued that the convicts were a large expense to the state without producing the slightest material benefit. Convicts could be used to work on the much needed public roads which "need not and should not compete with free labor." Again the legislature failed to act on the penitentiary bill.
By the end of the first session, the legislature finally authorized the Board of Prison Control to purchase land at McAlester, Oklahoma, and to begin construction of a penitentiary using prison labor. The first contingent of 100 inmates from Lansing arrived on October 14, 1908, and the state temporarily housed this group at the former federal jail at McAlester. Under the direction of the new warden, Robert W. Dick, the inmates built a temporary stockade to house themselves and a second group of inmates from Lansing who Dick planned to use in constructing the permanent penitentiary. The stockade cell house was a clapboard, two-story structure, which measured 30 feet wide by 132 feet long. But the legislature stalled in appropriating funds for the construction of the permanent institution.
Governor Haskell reminded the legislature in January, 1909, that the contract with Kansas was due to expire at the end of the month. Since the legislature had not appropriated the construction funds, and had not yet renewed the contract, he wanted to know what action they would take regarding the 155 inmates at McAlester, over 562 at Lansing, and another 150 in county jails throughout the state that were waiting for "directions as to where they will be transported and confined."
Charles N. Haskell
First Governor of the
State of Oklahoma
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.
Oklahoma Charities and Corrections Commissioners
Catherine (Kate) Ann Barnard
1907 - 1915
Kate Barnard was Oklahoma's first Commissioner of Charities and Corrections. She was also the first woman elected to state office in Oklahoma history – and the nation – before women had the right to vote. She persuaded lawmakers to adopt laws governing compulsory education and child labor, and establishing the state's juvenile justice system.
Barnard is perhaps best known for discovering horrific treatment of Oklahoma prisoners in a Kansas prison where they were housed. That led to those inmates' return to Oklahoma, construction of the state's first prison (Oklahoma State Penitentiary), and the establishment of a three-tiered state prison system: a penitentiary, reformatory and boys' training school.
Her advocacy led to 30 new state laws addressing establishment of today's Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections proudly named one of three female prisons in her honor.
William D. Matthews
1915 - 1923
William Matthews was a veteran of the Confederate Army, a former teacher and Methodist preacher. He was Oklahoma's second Commissioner of Charities and Corrections from 1915 1923.
However, when Matthews was elected, then-Gov. Robert Lee Williams appointed him to the state pension board, of which he became chairman. Consequently, most of his time over the state prison system was devoted to his duties with the pension board.
Mabel Luella Bourne Bassett
1923 - 1947
Mabel Bassett was Oklahoma's third Charities and Corrections Commissioner. She was elected for six consecutive four-year terms. Bassett believed the state needed to drastically reform its prison system, improve prison conditions, expand probation services, outlaw inhumane treatment and build a women's prison in McAlester, which now sits empty.
Bassett spent her 24 years in office fighting for what she believed was right, investigating neglect reports in every state orphanage, jail, prison or similar institution. She was a vociferous advocate, arguing mere incarceration would not protect society – only inmate rehabilitation would.
Bassett worked to establish and maintain standards for correctional facilities and state mental institutions. She also established the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board in 1944.
For her outstanding contribution to the state, she was inducted into Oklahoma's “Hall of Fame” by the Oklahoma Memorial Association on Statehood Day in 1937.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections proudly named one of three female prisons in her honor.
1947 - 1967
Buck Cook, who defeated Mabel Bassett in a 1946 runoff election, was Oklahoma's fourth Commissioner of Charities and Corrections. Under his administration, his office's duties were limited to routine inspections of jails and other institutions.
A former state trooper, he retired after holding the office for 20 years. That same year, the legislature enacted the Oklahoma Corrections Act of 1967, creating a new state agency to administer court-imposed prison sentences.
1967 - 1977
The State Legislature enacted the Oklahoma Corrections Act of 1967 four months after Jim Cook took office as the fifth Commissioner of Charities and Corrections.
The act created a new Department of Corrections as of July 1, 1967. From 1967-1977, the Department of Corrections had both a Commissioner and a Director.
Cook resigned in 1977 after Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment abolishing the position in 1975. The amendment did not take effect until January 1979.
1977 - 1979
An appointee of former Oklahoma Gov. David Boren, Jack Stamper led the Oklahoma Department of Charities and Corrections from October 1977 until the post ended in January 1979. He succeeded Jim Cook of Latimer County, who resigned after Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment abolishing the position.
Before his appointment, Stamper served on the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission. He resigned that position to accept Boren's appointment.
Stamper was the former owner of the Hugo Daily News, the McCurtain County Gazette, which he bought in 1968, and former co-owner of the Antlers American, his obituary in The Oklahoman states. Stamper was also a veteran who served his country as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Europe during World War II.