NORMAN — The Oklahoma prison system has no problem filling its cells, but it is having trouble filling open positions.

Terri Watkins, Oklahoma Department of Corrections communication director, said the state prison system has a 30 percent fewer correctional officers than it needs.

“We haven’t invested in our employees and training, and that needs to change,” DOC Director Joe M. Allbaugh said.

Even though the request for the two new facilities accounts for more than half of the total appropriation requested for Fiscal Year 18, it isn’t the top priority on the budget request.

DOC is requesting $10 million so all DOC employees can receive a 5 percent salary increase, as well as benefit packages.

Allbaugh said DOC is turning over correctional officers at a rate of 39 percent and probation officers at 23 percent each year.

“We do not have the employees that we need to operate a safe environment for our staff and to protect the public,” Allbaugh said. “The budget request reflects the reality in the Oklahoma criminal justice system.”

Lexington Assessment & Reception Center Warden Jeorld Braggs Jr. said prison staff is being asked to do more with less.

Complicating the situation is overtime pay, which has become a burdensome necessity. Watkins said the shortage of correctional officers leads to frequent overtime, which has become a “huge part of the budget.” It’s an expensive contingency plan, and Watkins said it’s not just cost that’s an issue.

“Nobody really likes [correctional officers] working 14 to 15 hours at a time,” she said. “You don’t want them working those kinds of shifts.”

Watkins said hours are not capped at the administration level, but security chiefs and wardens monitor those hours.

“Do you want to stand next to somebody who’s working 80 hours a week? It’s not a good situation,” Watkins said, “and it’s not fair to their families.”

The legislature will get its first look at the DOC budget proposal when it returns to session Feb. 6. Watkins said she expects the legislature to vote on the DOC’s budget some time in May.

“I don’t know if [Oklahomans] want to know about it, but they need to know about it,” Watkins said. “I don’t think a lot of people want to think about it.”

Mack Burke

mburke@normantranscript.com

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Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.

Jacob McGuire is the Crime and Courts reporter for The Norman Transcript. McGuire is currently pursuing his MPA at the University of Oklahoma.