Criminal Justice

Ray Carter | April 11, 2019

Corrections system is in crisis, officials say

Ray Carter

In the debate over corrections reform, much focus is placed on current and future inmates. But the other side of the equation includes people who work in prisons. Anything that drives down inmate numbers can make the lives of correctional officers easier, reform advocates note.

But until that happens, Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, says lawmakers need to address personnel needs and improve prison infrastructure.

“We are in a crisis in our prison system—period,” said Cleveland, a former state representative who was a champion of corrections reform in the House of Representatives.

Cleveland points out that a correctional officer makes $13.74 an hour, working five to seven days a week, doing 12-hour shifts with no official lunch break. That workload is excessive and has severe consequences, he said. Cleveland noted a female correctional officer recently committed suicide and in the last two years two correctional officers fell asleep while driving. In one incident, the resulting accident killed two people while in the other the correctional officer died.

But long hours aren’t the only challenge. Nationwide, he said prisons average 10.5 officers for every 100 inmates. In Oklahoma, Cleveland said the average is one officer per 100 inmates, “and in some cases we’ve got 200 inmates.”

“We cannot continue treating people like this,” Cleveland said. “It’s just barbaric.”

Yet the deteriorating condition of many state prisons, some of which are roughly a century old and increasingly obsolete, makes it difficult to boost the pay of those who staff prisons.

“We can’t get out of this hole,” Cleveland said. “We don’t have any money in the budget because it’s costing so much to operate these old, antiquated prisons we’ve got. They’re just eating us alive in dollars.”

Cleveland’s comments echo those made by officials with the Department of Corrections. Last October, the state Board of Corrections approved a $1.57 billion budget request, a huge increase compared to the $517 million appropriation given the agency for the current budget year.

The additional money included $884 million to add 5,200 beds to the prison system and $18.5 million for staff pay raises. Agency officials believe they need at least one new medium-security facility for men and want to add on or expand other facilities.

“This request is not a wish list,” ODOC Director Joe M. Allbaugh said at the time. “This is what we need. Oklahoma continues to send more people to prison, and it costs real money to house, look after, and provide those individuals medical care—all of which we are required to do.”

The DOC budget request would boost cadet correctional officers’ pay from $13.74 per hour, the region’s lowest, to $14.74.

Oklahoma Corrections Professionals are supporting legislation that would provide $2-an-hour “hazard pay” raises to guards in direct contact with the inmate population.

That proposal, House Bill 2622, passed the House of Representatives on a 99-0 vote and passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee this week on a 17-0 vote.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond and chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary, said a correctional officer pay raise “is needed.” Pugh said he supports providing a larger raise than $2, in part because the cost could be partially offset by reduced overtime.

“I do want to curb the overtime,” Pugh said. “And that’s a challenge that we have to consider: What’s the right dollar amount where not only do we make the pay fair for those individuals but we can also hire enough that we don’t need to rely on overtime?”

Even if corrections reform efforts succeed in driving down Oklahoma’s prison population, Pugh said it will be “a long process” and the need for increased spending in the system won’t go away overnight.

“At what point does the policy we’re implementing today start to really have an effect on reducing that prison population? I’m not sure,” Pugh said. “So we still have to address the aging infrastructure. We still have to address the personnel issues.”

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, is author of the bill providing the $2-an-hour raise. He says reforms could drive down the number of people housed in prisons, but warns the infrastructure and personnel needs of the correction system will continue to require additional funding.

“We’re driving a vehicle on blocks,” Humphrey said. “Our vehicle is on blocks. Now, you can paint it. You can put chrome wheels on it. It’s going nowhere. We need to upgrade.”

He predicted the state will be paying more for prison upgrades and staffing needs for years, “no matter what.”

Humphrey believes reform of the supervision process, modeled in part after systems used in Texas and Arizona that have proven more effective than what is occurring in Oklahoma, could reduce the prison population by thousands.

In the meantime, if nothing is done to improve conditions at Oklahoma prisons, Cleveland warns things may get worse—much worse—before they get better, and could even include lawsuits against the state or a federal takeover of prisons.

Cleveland receives a weekly report listing crimes that occur inside Oklahoma’s prison system. Most incidents are inmate-on-inmate crimes, but inmate-on-correctional-officer crimes are also reported.

That report, Cleveland said, “used to be five, six pages, maybe 10. Now it’s 30. The stuff in the prison is growing rapidly.” If nothing is done that alters that trajectory, he warns, “I believe we are on the verge of a major, major problem.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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