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
"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.
People convicted of crimes that require an offender to serve up to 85 percent of the sentence, rather than being released early are also helping to fill the state's prisons. Oklahoma has 20 crimes in state statute that require the offender to serve longer time. The crimes include murder, drug trafficking and crimes that deal with child abuse, pornography and child prostitution.
"We are seeing more violent offenders who are staying longer," Jones said.
At the same time, the Department of Corrections, like other state agencies, is trimming its staff, offering voluntary buyouts to older employees and asking employees to take leave without pay to make ends meet.
"It's more stress when people end up doing double shifts," Jones said. "On the other side of issues, you become better at your job and communicating with offenders and being efficient."
Jones acknowledges that with fewer staff, it could take longer to respond to inmate fights or other disturbances. Early retirement and buyouts are also cutting down on the number of veteran correctional officers there are at facilities who have built rapport with inmates.
Most correctional officers have less than two years experience on the job, according figures from the Department of Corrections.
The loss of veteran officers means there's a learning curve for staff working in more stressful conditions. Inmates are aware there are fewer people watching them and many are trying to get contraband inside facilities, Rogers said.
"Offenders are aware. They know we're at 100 percent capacity," he said. "Communication is key. Sometimes we have to talk an offender through something. Maybe they just need to vent because they received some bad new or something happened in their case. When we used to have five people working with offenders, we have two now. There's no way we can handle every situation that arises."
"It's a tense time right now statewide. ... 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."
Oklahoma Public Employees Association board member
Part of a continuing series looking at major issues that will face the next governor.
Oklahoma's prison system
Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of women put in prison, per capita. It is fourth in the nation in the number of men incarcerated, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The average age of an offender in the Corrections Department system is 37.4 years old.
Costs of incarcerating someone varies based on security level.
For a maximum security inmate it cost $70.04 per day. For a minimum security inmate it was $54.32 in 2008.
There were 24,885 people in the state's prison system as of Tuesday.
Oklahoma owns and operates 17 correctional centers, seven community corrections centers, 15 community work centers for low-risk offenders.
Oklahoma houses offenders at three private prisons.