William S. Keys Correctional Facility is Closing: What Now?

by Aliye Hargett, OCJR Policy Intern

The announcement by the DOC that the William S. Keys Correctional Facility in Fort Supply, Oklahoma will close by the end of 2021 caused great commotion in Oklahoma–but not in the way it should have.  Citizens and legislators alike lamented that the closing would wreak havoc on Fort Supply’s economy and acknowledged that the 140 employees of the facilities would lose their jobs or have to relocate to remain an employee of the Department of Corrections (DOC).  While the loss of any number of jobs is unfortunate, the jobs could be replaced within Fort Supply by turning the land of William S. Keys into a new opportunity for economic growth and employment stability in Woodward County.  Community leaders and representatives have an obligation to find a mutually beneficial use for the site; beginning to strategize and plan for those uses is incredibly important.  For too long, rural Oklahoma has been losing jobs and economic vitality, but a prison closure is a blessing in disguise for this community, as it opens the door for even greater economic growth.  This is the third major facility closure in two years, and it signals a major win for Oklahoma as we try to reverse the trend of being the top incarcerator in the world. 

            However, aside from the overall reduction in individuals being incarcerated in Oklahoma, DOC made the decision to close the facility due to numerous other concerns for the safety of the staff and individuals incarcerated. In the press release, DOC Director Scott Crow noted that the inmate housing units were not built to prison specifications in 1947 and 1951, and maintaining the infrastructure to the degree necessary for safety would be impossible.  In addition, the Oklahoma DOC is understaffed; therefore, if all Keys employees choose to remain with the DOC, the 120 individuals transferred to other facilities could help improve the lives of those working for other DOC prisons. This, in turn, could improve the lives of individuals incarcerated, as the less tired and overworked the employees are, the less likely they are to make a dangerous mistake or lose their tempers. 

            William S. Keys is the largest minimum-security prison in the state, covering 3,200 acres, including agricultural services and the Fort Supply Historical Site.  Without the prison, this land could still be used to stimulate great economic growth and stability in Fort Supply.  Below are six ideas that could help build the Fort Supply community in the best ways possible. 

  1. Community Recreation and Learning Center (CRLC)

A before and after study of 687 adults found that participation in community center activities–leisure, exercise, cooking, befriending, and arts and crafts–created positive changes in self-reported general health, mental health, and personal and social well-being. Therefore, the creation of a Community Recreation and Learning Center (CRLC) has the ability to enrich both the Fort Supply community and economy.  The CRLC would allow children and adults to participate in sports, take courses, and learn trades, which will help foster a healthier, creative, and more vibrant community.  The CRLC would include tennis courts, volleyball courts, basketball courts, a baseball field, an exercise area with weights and equipment, and a swimming pool.  This would ensure that individuals of all ages could enjoy physical activity at the CRLC. In addition, the CRLC would include a set of classrooms so that both community courses (ie. parenting, finances, arts and language courses, healthy living etc.), tutoring for students, and trade programs (culinary courses, farming, etc.) could occur at the center.   A small theater where students and adults could perform would also allow for the development of arts programs.  The CRLC would also include a small library with study spaces and a computer lab with printers so that students, adults taking courses, or anyone in the community could have a quiet place to read or study. 

An addition to the CRLC that could bring in even more jobs than the CRLC alone, would be the construction of cabins and a canteen on the property so that the CRLC could run a summer camp.  This could bring individuals from all over Oklahoma and the surrounding states to Western Oklahoma.  The facility is only a five-minute drive (2.3-mile distance) from Fort Supply Lake, where individuals already participate in watersports and fishing.  The CRLC could have transportation to take campers and individuals renting watersport and fishing gear to the lake. 

2. Food Hall

Utilizing the land that currently holds the William S. Keys Correctional Facility to build a food hall, similar to what is found in Tulsa’s Mother Road Market, could bring jobs, talent, and tourism to Fort Supply.  The food hall would have resident restaurants, but it could also have an open space for foodtrepreneurs in the area to test their business model and recipes.  The food hall would be a destination for locals and individuals from all over the state to eat, shop at pop-up shops, and learn.  A recent example of economic development in a rural area can be seen in the revitalization of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Pawhuska used The Pioneer Woman restaurant to center downtown development and create a destination location.

A Fort Supply food hall could also include a kitchen classroom where local restaurants, bakers, and home chefs could lead pop-up community cooking classes.  Ongoing cooking classes throughout the year, along with courses in food sustainability and farming, would give the community a place to gather and learn new skills on a weekly basis. 

The Mother Road Market in Tulsa has been incredibly successful, and this success could be replicated in Fort Supply.  In a report released by the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, the Mother Road Market created 266 new jobs, had over $7.7 million in sales, and more than 500,000 customers visited.  In addition, the merchants exceeded their original sales projections by an average of 150%, and the Mother Road Market diverted 7,196 pounds of waste from landfills through their composting relationship with Full Sun Composting.  The Mother Road Market also donated over 200 pounds of extra food to the Tulsa community.  While a food hall in Fort Supply will not have as many locals to support from the beginning, a food hall like the Mother Road Market could create immense economic growth, ample job opportunities, and community development in Fort Supply.  Individuals may argue that a food hall could not be successful in Fort Supply because they do not believe that people from Oklahoma City or Tulsa will drive to eat there; however, those individuals should look into the success of Ree Drummond’s restaurants and store in Pawhuska, Oklahoma to see that Oklahomans are willing to drive a great distance for an experience with delicious food. 

3. Fort Supply Resort and Spa

For those who believe that a bigger tourist attraction would be a better way to energize the Fort Supply economy, a resort and spa could become a destination for Oklahomans and individuals living in surrounding states.  Its location in the panhandle makes it ideal for interstate travelers from New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas to get a respite.  A resort with a large pool, nice restaurant, tennis courts, and a large ballroom for weddings could attract individuals to Fort Supply.  In addition, the resort could set up an additional restaurant on Fort Supply Lake; they could offer transportation to and from the lake, along with boat and watersport rentals for locals and resort guests.  Individuals in Fort Supply already fish and hunt around Fort Supply Lake, so the resort and spa could be marketed as a destination where everyone can find what helps them relax. 

The addition of a spa and restaurant could increase the number of jobs the resort creates and a way for more of the community to use the space as well. Individuals in the community not staying at the resort could get haircuts at the spa, and individuals could buy gift cards to the spa to give as presents.  The spa could make Fort Supply a destination for “girls’ trips” and bachelorette weekends, and the availability of boating, hunting, and water sports on Fort Supply Lake could make Fort Supply Resort a great place for family outings.  In addition, the restaurant would create a way for the community to enjoy delicious food and gather together.  Oklahomans, especially in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, are always looking for new, quiet places to get away for the weekend, and a resort and spa in Fort Supply could give an incredible boost to the Fort Supply economy through tourism and job creation.

4. Data Center

In 2007, Google announced its plans to open a data center in Pryor, Oklahoma to help the tech giant power online searches, web advertising, and cloud services. Since then, Google has invested more than $3 billion into Oklahoma and awarded $3 million in grants to Oklahoma nonprofits and schools.  Google also invested $1.3 billion in renewable energy infrastructure.

While the money that Google has invested is impressive, the data center also created over 500 jobs for individuals in Mayes County.  Google announced in 2019 that it would invest another $600 million to expand the Pryor data center, and the addition would allow for an additional 100 new long-term jobs and 10,000 construction jobs during the renovation.  The Tulsa World praised Google’s Mayes County data center for transforming Pryor, as Google brought high paying, high-tech jobs to community members, which significantly increased property-tax revenue for the public school system.  These factors have created a more secure and robust community in Mayes County.

While the economic impact of the creation of a data center would be incredible for Fort Supply, the ecological impacts that data centers have on communities could prevent it from taking hold there.  Google utilizes evaporative cooling–which evaporates water to cool the air around the processing units stacked inside data centers–to ensure that internet connectivity is not disturbed by the systems overheating.  However, while evaporative cooling is energy efficient, it needs substantially more water than traditional cooling processes.  Google has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint and energy use, but the billions of gallons used each year to cool data centers could only exacerbate the water shortages that many Oklahoma counties saw in February.  While Amazon does not publish its water usage metrics, Microsoft uses significantly less water than Google; Microsoft reported using five billion liters of water in 2019, while Google used over 15 billion liters that year.  If Fort Supply believes that a data center is the best replacement of William S. Keys, the community should work to attract Microsoft, or work with Google to address the water consumption concern.

5. Mental Health Center

A 2018 report performed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that only 0.03% of Oklahoma’s population utilizes mental health services. This number is staggering, as Oklahoma has the third highest rate of mental illness in the United States, with 22% of Oklahomans suffering from some form.  Fort Supply is home to the Acute Inpatient branch of the Northwest Center for Behavioral Health.  However, there are only four psychiatrists and one clinical psychologist in all of Woodward County.

The Fort Supply Community could benefit from an additional mental health center, where mental health providers could provide substance abuse treatment and therapy to individuals from all over the state. In addition, the mental health center could run community-wide mental health awareness events and workshops. 

The creation of a mental health center in the place of William S. Keys would also be a statement that Oklahoma is committed to reform and rehabilitation, rather than mass incarceration.  Oklahoma has the highest Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score in the United States, and if children and adults who experience ACES have a place to talk about their trauma, more Oklahomans would be empowered to turn their pain into power and not fall victim to Oklahoma’s incarceration system.

6. Oklahoma History Museum: The Authentic Settler and Tribe Experience

The history of Fort Supply, and its namesake, make it a compelling choice for the creation of an Oklahoma history museum that focuses on the experiences of settlers and American Indians.  Fort Supply was originally named Camp Supply when it was established on November 18, 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign against the American Indian tribes of the southern Great Plains.  The camp held a number of other functions throughout history, including serving as the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Agency from 1868-1870 to protect the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation from violence.  The camp was also used as a protection site for travelers and settlers of Southern Kansas.  In addition, the fort acted as a supply depot for army operations during the Red River War of 1874-75. Soldiers at Fort Supply were last tasked to expel individuals illegally entering the Cherokee Outlet before it officially closed in September 1894. 

Fort Supply’s long, interwoven, and violent history with American Indians creates an opportunity for growth in Oklahoma to change the narrative of silence on important historical topics.  Because of this, one usage of the land of William S. Keys could be the addition of an Oklahoma history museum to the Fort Supply Historical Site that highlights the experiences of settlers and American Indians throughout Oklahoma history.  The museum would be a place of education and economic growth for Fort Supply and all of Oklahoma, as schools could travel to learn the true story of Oklahoma’s history.  The museum could also include a performing arts center, where the history and culture of Oklahoma’s American Indian tribes could be preserved and learned by all Oklahomans.

Why This is Important?

            These are only a few of the ways that the William S. Keys land could be transformed to a place of economic growth and stability for Fort Supply.  If the land is used in a way that creates opportunity, jobs, and learning, the land will become a space that works to revitalize Oklahoma and reverse the generational cycles that contribute to mass incarceration in Oklahoma.