The Norman Transcript

State/Region

April 6, 2014

Oklahoma prison boss clearing county jails

(Continued)

OKLAHOMA CITY —

“They’ve already given us the call and want to take 20 of the 40,” said Payne County Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Woodward. “That would definitely impact our budget. Certainly we’d have to come up with a different funding source for the medical contract.”

Because food and medical expenses are mandatory, Woodward said jail officials would have to cut other programs or shore up costs elsewhere.

“But for some of these small counties, this could be really devastating,” Woodward said.

Patton, Oklahoma’s new prison boss, sees the county jail backup as just one piece in the complicated puzzle of corrections reform in a state with more than 26,000 inmates and one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. He said one of his top goals is to make sure inmates are being appropriately classified and moved into lower-cost beds in some of the state’s private halfway houses or 15 community work centers.

“Only those offenders that are in true need of maximum custody should be placed in maximum-custody beds,” Patton said. “If we can manage them at a lower custody level, then we need to look at a lower custody level. I should have a list of 1,000 inmates waiting to get into halfway houses in this state. It shouldn’t be the other way around, where I have 500 inmates waiting to get into maximum custody.”

Patton also is facing a staffing crisis in many state prisons, where starting pay for a correctional officer is $11.83 per hour. Prison workers are routinely forced to work 60-hour work weeks at understaffed facilities with some of the worst officer-to-inmate staffing ratios in the nation.

Patton’s visits to the 17 state prisons across the state and his apparent willingness to embrace new ideas are helping improve morale among staff, but there still is concern about how much additional work they can handle, said Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a group that represents prison workers.

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