Opinion: Prisons and jails shouldn’t be built anywhere near public schools

Existing law isn’t robust enough to protect students

October 13, 2023 5:28 am

A recent debate over relocating the Oklahoma County jail has highlighted an obscure state law that dictates how close correctional facilities can be to schools. (Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a Getty subscription.)

Some leaders across the Oklahoma City area have raised the alarm recently about an odd provision of state law that allows correctional facilities to be built uncomfortably close to public schools.

A debate over relocating the Oklahoma County jail has highlighted an obscure provision in state law that allows correctional facilities to be built about two-tenths of a mile from K-12 schools.

Oklahoma Voice reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel reported that multiple superintendents have raised objections about plans to relocate the Oklahoma County jail within a mile of existing schools.

While county commissioners are currently eying a patch of land in a mostly industrial area near the Will Rogers World Airport, they’re still working to procure the property, and the idea faces bureaucratic hurdles that include getting approval from the Oklahoma City Airport Trust and input from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The other named finalist is a location a half-mile from a Crooked Oak Public Schools athletic complex and about a mile from an elementary school in Midwest City-Del City school district. 

Another option floated, and later axed, included a site less than a block from Harding Charter Preparatory High School in northeast Oklahoma City.

Superintendents told Martinez-Keel that many students walk home from school, wait at bus stops and attend sporting events in the areas near the schools.

They’re concerned that the state law that prohibits a correctional facility from being within 1,000 feet of a school isn’t robust enough.

It isn’t.

In an odd twist, state law actually bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school. Yet, state law allows correctional facilities to house those offenders even closer.

Granted, nobody wants a prison or county jail in their neighborhood, but the seriousness ratchets up a notch when officials consider erecting jails so close to schools.

Jails and prisons unfortunately house people accused of drug dealing, child molestation, rape, murder, child sex trafficking and many other egregious crimes. 

Parents, meanwhile, deserve reassurance that their children can walk to school safely or stand at the bus stop without strangers routinely approaching them.

Steven Stefanick, the superintendent of Harding Independence Charter District, said he’s concerned that inmates with no transportation leave county jails on foot when released.

That could put those who’ve just been released in the path of children. 

Stefanick said jails need to be built in places where there is infrastructure to ensure both community and school safety.

Lawmakers too have long been obsessed with keeping things away from schools in an effort to ensure safety. Every few years, they add restrictions on something else.

There are enhanced penalties for people who distribute a controlled substance within 2,000 feet of a school. And it’s a crime to possess a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school.

Dispensaries and marijuana grows cannot be built within 1,000 feet. Possession of marijuana is likewise prohibited.

In 2019, lawmakers expanded a prohibition against liquor stores from 300 feet from schools to 1,000 feet.

Sexually oriented businesses are also prohibited within 1,000 feet. 

Prostitution is a felony within 1,000 feet of a school, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. 

If Oklahoma lawmakers don’t want those types of offenses and businesses near schools, they certainly shouldn’t want anyone accused of committing those offenses housed anywhere near schools.

It may be time to take a second look at the distance prohibitions for jails and prisons to make sure they’re aligned with current needs.

After all, parents deserve to know that those laws are robust enough to protect their children, regardless of whether they live in urban areas or in rural communities.

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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.