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Are Oklahoma Prison Riots Imminent?

10-Oct-2014

Yesterday, the independent news website Red Dirt Report published an article stating that statewide, coordinated prison riots are imminent in Oklahoma. Author Mindy Ragan Wood penned the article after saying the website's journalists received information from Oklahoma Department of Corrections sources that prisoners are arming themselves and preparing to riot in prisons across the state.

The article is entitled "Tipping Point: Prison riots likely any day now, warn prison and law-enforcement insiders," and the message it contains is grim for state prison authorities.

Wood writes that state  prisons are reaching a boiling point due to several factors: most notably understaffing and overcrowding.

A Tulsa World article released less than a year ago cites a study showing that Oklahoma ranks last in the nation in the ratio of correctional officers to offenders. The national average is one correctional officer for every 5.5 inmates, but in Oklahoma, the number of inmates per guard is doubled, with one officer to every 11.7 inmates. Imagine being outnumbered 12 to 1 by prison inmates, many of whom may be violent offenders.

The dangers of understaffing prisons became clear late last year when an inmate violently assaulted a female case worker at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. The victim, Darla Cowan, was thrown to the ground and beaten by a convicted rapist for 15 minutes before help arrived. While the Lexington prison has a capacity of 1,400 inmates, there were 160 offenders in the unit where Cowan was working. There was only one guard on duty in the unit.

Although the state prison population has increased by 13 percent in the past decade, the number of correctional officers has decreased by 19 percent. Corrections staff are underpaid and overworked, and the state legislature has not passed a budget that allows adequate staffing of state prisons. While the average starting salary for prison guards in the United States is $15.83 per hour, in Oklahoma, it is was a mere $11.83 in 2013.

Sean Wallace, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, told the Tulsa World, "The Department of Corrections has lost more than 500 corrections officers in the last five years because of budget cuts and the inability to recruit and retain officers, and the prison population only grows bigger every year. It’s shocking to see just how far we are from the rest of the country on staffing.” He told reporters that it would take the hiring of 2,000 correctional officers just to bring the state to average staffing levels. However, in July 2014, more corrections officers quit than were hired.

In the 2013 Tulsa World article, a corrections officer at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center warned of the dangerous situation brewing, saying, "We’re so outnumbered. They (inmates) could take this place over anytime if they wanted to -- any time -- and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

It's a prediction that Red Dirt Report says is quickly coming true.

Take higher incarceration rates and add mandatory minimums, longer sentencing, and insufficient staffing, and you have a recipe for disaster. Will it take statewide riots for the Oklahoma government to take notice?



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