NORMAN — Although the number of inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has dropped in recent years, the prison still faces some of the same problems afflicting other corrections institutions, state officials and prison officers say.
Those include a shortage of staff, low morale, high turnover, funding needs, aging facilities and uncertainty about the future.
Oklahoma Watch interviewed seven current or recently employed guards in addition to corrections officials and the director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, asking about working conditions at the penitentiary. A number of the issues apply to other prisons as well, said Sean Wallace, who heads the corrections officers group.
“We’ve got crisis right now in staffing,” Wallace said. “I think everywhere right now there’s a real (safety) threat to officers and to the inmates.”
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the corrections department, said staffing needs, turnover and low pay for guards are system-wide issues.
Donnie Dycus, of McAlester, who served as an officer at the penitentiary from 2005 to 2011, said he saw morale at the penitentiary begin to sink lower mostly because of mandatory overtime practices.
Some employees volunteer for the overtime to bolster their paycheck, but often the overtime is required to fill in gaps in staffing, Dycus said. Massie confirmed that guards are required to work a certain amount of overtime. Dycus and other officers said they often must work a16-hour shift two days a week. Some employees have worked three or even four double shifts in a week, he said.
“Out there, you have no choice,” Dycus said.
Often, an officer will not know whether he or she is working a double shift until a few hours in advance. The required overtime has caused a number of safety issues, he said. Wallace and several officers said they know of guards who have had traffic accidents while driving home from work, exhausted. Dycus said officers have nodded off in control rooms during work hours.
The issue of officer attentiveness is especially important at McAlester because the prison houses many of the state’s most dangerous offenders, said Wallace.
“When you’re doing the kind of overtime they’re doing, there and at other facilities, it’s a dangerous situation because these guys are so tired,” Wallace said.
According to data from the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, in 2011 employees at the penitentiary were paid nearly $2.6 million in overtime; 22 made more than $20,000 in OT, and three made more than $30,000. In 2012, about $2.2 million in overtime was paid, with 18 employees making more than $20,000. Each year, about 80 percent of the 400-plus employees earned overtime.
Massie said the department is not trying to keep staff levels low, but hiring has been difficult because corrections officers’ wages are lower than those in the private sector, such as in the oil and gas industry, and not everyone is cut out for prison work.
Massie said not having officers work mandatory overtime when the prison is so shorthanded would create more unsafe conditions.
“You’re kind of caught on the horns of a dilemma,” Massie said. “You’ve got to have people there.”
Oklahoma pays its officers a starting wage of $11.83 an hour, which is lower than that of most other states in the region, according to Oklahoma corrections professionals and checks with states by Oklahoma Watch. For more than half a decade, Oklahoma officers have received no pay raises, although the department requested them from the Legislature. The starting pay equates to $24,605 a year, excluding overtime. With inflation, that is less than what new officers made in 1973, when a deadly riot erupted at the penitentiary. Starting pay then was $4,740, which equals $24,928 today, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
State Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, called the $11.83 starting pay for correctional officers “ridiculous.”
“They’re frustrated, and I don’t blame them,” Condit said.
Randy Workman, who retired last year and was warden of the penitentiary from 2008 to 2012, said he thinks the agency doesn’t treat its officers as well as it should. In addition to low pay and required overtime, the department is quick to fire employees for sometimes slight infractions and has cut back drastically on events for workers and their families. He said the agency also tends to micromanage facilities using cameras with a video feed to the department’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, he said.
Those factors add to the uncertainty about the future and the already stressful nature of the job and tend to lower morale, Workman said. Not only prison officers are leaving, but mid-level managers as well, he said.
“Was it always this way? No, not at all,” Workman said, adding the agency needs an overhaul.
Massie said the department generally fires officers only for serous violations. The cameras, he said, exist as much to protect employees as to monitor their practices.
He said low staffing levels were one reason for using the cameras, but even if the prison were fully staffed, they would still be necessary to provide extra surveillance. The video feeds are often monitored by administrative assistants, who will call the prison if they see something of concern. The assistants generally have years of experience working with correctional issues, he said.
The video feeds have provided evidence in the prosecution of three penitentiary guards accused of negligent homicide in the smoke-inhalation death of an inmate.
Massie said he did not know if low morale existed at the prisons, but that reports of low morale are understandable.
“They’re probably concerned with what the future brings, as to whether there’s going to be support for pay raises or the ability to attract staff,” Massey said. “The more hours they have to work and the more work they have to do without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, that affects morale.”
Reporter Farris Willingham contributed to this story. Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.