Mike Rogers has worked with the state's prisons for two decades, but he says conditions at the prisons today are the worst he's seen.
Rogers, a unit supervisor at James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, said staff is dwindling. Experienced correctional officers are taking early retirement and what's left is a stressed group of employees trying to watch over more and more inmates.
"It's a tense time right now statewide," said Rogers, who serves on the Oklahoma Public Employees Association board. "We are spreading the paint pretty thin. It's like trying to make a cup of tea after you've used a tea bag eight or nine times. You keep straining them leaves to get a little bit of flavor. It gets harder and harder every day."
There are times at Crabtree, a medium security facility, when one correctional officer could be watching over up to 300 inmates, Rogers said.
"Everybody has to wear three or four hats," Rogers said.
Inmate numbers grow
The state's inmate population has grown by 721 inmates this past year at a time when the Department of Corrections is working to absorb budget cuts brought on by a decline in state revenues.
The state's prison system, which includes 17 institutions and contract beds at three privately owned prisons, is at 99 percent capacity, with 24,885 people in state custody, said Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections.
This means there is less flexibility to move inmates or isolate offenders who are not getting along with other inmates.
"If I could, I would move some to private facilities, but that would cost money, and we don't have the money to do that," Jones said.
Violent offenders stay
The Department of Corrections also anticipates a budget shortfall and could be asking for a $40 million supplemental budget request when the Legislature convenes in February. Without the additional money, employees could be asked to take more days off without pay, he said.
The growth in offender population is attributed partially to an increase in inmates who are sentenced to prison because they fail a drug court program, Jones said. Offenders who fail the program are often sentenced to a longer time in prison than a nondrug court participant, he said.