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Oklahoma Prison Staffing Shortage Could Lead To Tragedy

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McALESTER, Oklahoma -

It was a prison riot like no other: deadly and very costly. And this Saturday -- July 27 -- will mark the 40th anniversary of the start of the siege that, ultimately, saw three prisoners killed and between $20 and $40 million in damage done to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Big Mac, as the prison is commonly known, is still open, of course -- home to the state's death row, and the lone maximum security facility in Oklahoma's corrections system.  But there's concern that a worsening staffing shortage at the 105-year-old penitentiary could lead to another tragedy. 

Interactive timeline: McAlester Prison Riot

In an effort to avoid such problems, the state has been making a move to thin the crowd.

"Over the last year or two, we've moved people out of that facility," said Jerry Massie, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

A recent change in the law allows maximum security offenders to be placed in private prisons, and the result of that shift was obvious during a recent visit to McAlester: hundreds of cells were empty and entire pods shut down.

The numbers tell the story.

In 2000, the average daily offender count at OSP was close to 1,500.  It declined gradually over the ensuing decade to just under 1,000.  In the last couple of years, the drop has been more precipitous -- now perched at 575.

Corrections officials say there are good reasons for the reduction.

"It's a combination of things," Massie explained. "We have some aging facilities there, and we have staffing issues there."

Clearly, the 'staffing issue' is significant.

While the inmate population has been shrinking, so has the number of correctional officers. Massie says understaffing has been a problem for as long as he's worked for the department, but says, "It's worse than it's ever been."

Some feel DOC itself is to blame.

"They're micro-managing that prison to death," said Randy Lopez, a recently retired correctional officer.

Lopez, who worked at OSP from November 1992 until December 2012, says DOC administration has made the low-paying job so labor intensive that more and more of the guards burn out and find jobs elsewhere.

"I was working two doubles a week, and that's the norm," said Lopez. "Now, they're making them work four doubles a week."

Massie says the double shifts may exacerbate the problem, but the true cause of the staffing shortage is competition from the oilfield -- the current availability of higher-paying jobs there.

"It's a never-ending battle trying to recruit and retain people," Massie stated.

The number of correctional officers at the penitentiary is down to about 205, an all-time low.  And what makes the situation even more difficult for DOC administrators is the number of offenders entering the corrections system, as a whole, keeps going up.

"We're projecting probably for next year -- next fiscal year," Massie said, "the need for an additional one thousand beds."

Massie says, outside of the penitentiary, they've maxed out the system.

"We've pretty much filled every nook and cranny," said Massie, leaving few options but to keep looking to private prisons to handle the increasing load.

Currently, about 23 percent of the state's prison population is housed in private prisons.  The average daily cost per inmate at one private facility is $57.  At the state penitentiary, which includes the costly death row and two special needs units, the average daily cost per inmate is $78.

Additional Coverage From Our Partner Oklahoma Watch

But, whatever the reason, that much of a cost differential means the reliance on private sector is only going to increase.

And that worries Lopez, the retired officer.

Lopez believes that, between the overworked and understaffed security force at OSP and the placement of more maximum security inmates in private prisons, DOC is just asking for trouble.

"And here's what'll happen," said Lopez. "There will be a major riot, or there will be an escape where one of these people gets out of a private prison and kills some people."

Corrections officials don't see that happening, but admit the public should at least be aware of the possibility.

"Prisons, by their nature, can volatile," said Massie. "Yeah, [citizens] probably should be concerned...we're concerned."


Below are responses from Rep . Jeff Hickman and Sen. Clark Jolley.

Rep. Jeff Hickman- Chairman, House Public Safety Appropriations Subcommittee

"Maximum security/death row, mental health unit, and administrative segregation inmates are all still housed at OSP. These are the most expensive inmates to care for and drives up the overall cost at OSP. Most inmates in private prisons are medium security, which costs less to care for than maximum security. With the budget cuts we imposed on DOC the past several years and the efficiencies they developed to do their job with less funding and a growing inmate population, the cost to house a medium security inmate in a state prison is now less than what we pay private prisons. Additionally, private prisons do not have an ADA unit for elderly inmates and those with long-term illnesses, and they don't have special units for mental health or treatment. The state cost for medium security inmates is now less than what we pay private prisons even with these additional expenses included. Private prisons also enjoy a cap on medical costs per inmate, they will not cover the cost of HIV medical protocols, and they limit the number of inmates they will take with hepatitis. Even given all of these factors, the average per diem per day at a state prison is $39.84 for a medium security inmate. The average per diem per day at a private prison is $42.14 for a medium security inmate."

Sen. Clark Jolley- Chairman, Senate Appropriations Committee

"As the MGT audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections noted, our state has steadily reduced its use of private prisons over the last several years – leaving our state more reliant on aging public prison facilities. Using private facilities should always be an option for the state, especially when there are cost savings that could be realized that could be reinvested elsewhere in the agency. My firm belief is the state should always strive for a balance between the public and private facilities. DOC's leadership has either by intent or neglect allowed the steady decline of private facility use to create an imbalance in appropriate use of private and public facilities. … OSP is one of the oldest facilities in our system and most of it has served its purpose and should be mothballed. Our prison guards should be able to utilize modern prison construction methods to increase their safety, reduce agitation amongst the prisoner population and allow for better staffing ratios, especially at our maximum security facilities. I applaud Director Jones' decision and endorse his plan to close those parts of OSP which needed to be closed years ago and move some of those prisoners into other facilities – including private options. Reducing the risk for our guards by stopping the reliance on ineffective older facilities is a wise move in doing a better job in corrections."

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