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.