State lawmakers get close look at prison cuts by visiting prison in McAlester

Wednesday, July 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ Inmates press their faces against the bars, their tattooed arms jutting into the hallway where nurses, counselors and case managers now walk without escort.

Staff say inmates are more likely to throw feces and urine at passers-by when guards aren't around. It's one example of how moneysaving staff cuts have affected safety at state prisons.

More than half a dozen lawmakers toured the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on Wednesday for a look at what happens when the Department of Corrections gets $21 million less than requested.

They were told having 118 fewer guards jeopardizes the safety of employees and diminishes security at the prison that houses the state's most dangerous felons.

``An inmate doesn't come here unless they're a high-risk inmate,'' Warden Mike Mullin said. ``They've been manipulating every system they've been in all their life.''

Corrections officials are trying to get lawmakers to budget more money for prisons next fiscal year. State revenues have come in millions below projections this year, leading to spending cuts at all agencies.

Some lawmakers proposed increasing the state sales tax by a penny to raise revenues, but the measure failed during the session this spring.

``The people of Oklahoma are going to have to decide whether they want us to continue cutting prison staff, programs for the elderly and children or maybe take a look at a temporary revenue increase,'' said Rep. Terry Harrison, D-McAlester, who toured the prison.

Fewer guards mean other types of workers often are required to supervise inmates, officials said. In the prison's three-ring bindery, inmates are watched only by the shop's supervisors.

``The way the staffing is right now, if we didn't have the case managers and the counselors we couldn't run these units,'' said Scott Spears, a case manager in medium security units I and G.

Spears said parts of his units go unguarded when officers go outside to patrol the exercise yard.

``That's when the killing is going to happen,'' he said.

McAlester's 1,389 prisoners are kept under lockdown 23 hours a day and constantly during the weekends. With fewer guards they sometimes don't get their one hour in the yard, eroding inmate morale and increasing the risk of an uprising, officials said.

``If they don't get to go outside, if they don't get to break the monotony, it becomes a security issue,'' Deputy Warden Kameron Harvanek said. ``They get frustrated.''

At maximum security F Unit, only one guard locked inside the control room remains when others step out to watch the yard. In better budget times, there were two guards walking the halls and escorting other staff members to cells.

R.L. Berry, unit manager for F Unit floors two, three and four, says he still feels safe.

``I've been here for 19 years,'' Berry said. ``Safety is a mental state.''

Lawmakers suggested the state could save money at its prisons by changing sentencing guidelines so fewer criminal are incarcerated or by privatizing more of the state's detention centers.

``What we've got to do is find some creative ways to get the people in and out of here, or keep them from coming in,'' said Rep. Dennis Adkins, R-Tulsa.