Oklahoma Prisons: Overcrowded and Understaffed

The recent assault of a case worker at an Oklahoma prison has prompted public scrutiny of staffing concerns at state correctional facilities.

Only a few days before Christmas, an inmate at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, the state's largest medium-security prison, went to speak with a female case manager in her office. He assaulted her, breaking her nose. Representatives for state corrections workers say that the facility is understaffed, and with adequate staffing, the attack may have been prevented.

According to leaders of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the organization representing state corrections workers, the unit in which the case manager was assaulted houses 160 inmates, but only one corrections officer was on duty at the time of the assault.

David Ramsey, Oklahoma Corrections Professionals president, said that staffing at the facility continues to decline, largely in part to long hours and low pay. Corrections workers are expected to work 60 hours per week at a starting rate of only $11.83 per hour. Furthermore, current prison staffing is at only 60 percent of recommended levels, and the state corrections budget would allow staffing at only 67 percent.

Despite this inability to fully staff state prisons, Steve Mullins, general counsel to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin says, 'The governor is not concerned about the situation in the prisons. . . . [W]e see evidence - that the staffing is adequate for the safety of Oklahoma.'

Mullins says that corrections staffing is comparable to other states; however, numbers show otherwise. Oklahoma is dead last of 49 states surveyed, with a ratio of inmates to corrections officers that is nearly twice the national average. Corrections officers in Oklahoma make $4 per hour less than the national average starting pay for corrections workers in the United States.

Combine understaffing at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the Dick Conner Correctional Center, and the Oklahoma State Reformatory with inmate numbers at or exceeding capacity, and the state's prisons seem to be a ticking time bomb. The inmate population has increased by 13 percent since 2003, but the number of corrections officers has decreased by 19 percent.

Prison crowding is not a result of an influx of violent offenders. In Oklahoma, mandatory minimum sentencing and excessive prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses mean many people sitting in prison who would have already completed their sentences if they had been busted in other states.

The Sentencing Project offers the following statistics about Oklahoma's prison population:

  • Oklahoma has the third highest rate of incarceration in the nation.
  • Since 1989 the number of persons in prison has more than doubled.
  • Half (50%) of Oklahoma prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent property and drug offenses.
  • Oklahoma incarcerates a higher proportion of persons for drug offenses than other states, 27% of the prison population, compared to 20% nationally

What is the solution to the state's prison crisis? Higher pay for corrections workers? Adequate budget allocations for full staffing? Sentencing reform? All of the above?

Of course, none of the proposed solutions will do anything to remedy the situation unless the state government acknowledges that there is a problem and provides the means to implement necessary changes. In the meantime, groups like The Sentencing Project and Oklahoma Watch will work to increase awareness of what Oklahoma Watch calls 'one of the biggest criminal justice issues in Oklahoma'-the incarceration of nonviolent offenders who may be better served by substance abuse treatment and mental health care.

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