Higher wages and better hours offered by private employers are making it difficult for state prisons to fill openings, even though the Corrections Department's budget is enough to fill only 69 percent of the authorized positions, members of a legislative panel were told Thursday.
The lack of prison staffing puts public safety at risk, said Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, who requested an interim study on the issue.
“These prison staffing levels are life and death situations now,” Hickman said. “Someone is going to die if we don't make some changes and make them sooner rather than later.”
The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester is short 50 employees, he said. The maximum-security prison is authorized to have 521 workers and is funded to have 363. It has 310.
“We've got to find a way to staff these facilities,” Hickman said. “When I started this process, I thought it was an oil field area-related problem and we were going to have to pay more in those areas in market-based pay. I assumed there were some counties that the correctional job was the best job in the county and they were staffed well and the oil-field areas were short, and I found that it's just inadequate statewide.”
Inmates at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply have walked away because of low staffing levels, Hickman said. The minimum security prison, which has no fence around it, has 54 officers to watch more than 1,000 inmates. Prisoners wait for the overworked guards to be distracted and make the 30-yard walk to a nearby highway, he said.
Terry Martin, warden of the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, said one correctional officer is assigned to a unit that holds 160 offenders. More than half the 1,200 inmates at the medium-security prison are violent offenders, he told members of the House Public Safety Committee.
The Corrections Department is seeking a 5 percent raise for employees and an increase in starting pay for correctional officers from $11.83 to $14 an hour.
The cost would be $12.2 million; legislators this year appropriated $463.7 million of the $6.8 billion budget to the Corrections Department.
Starting pay for correctional officers is $12.98 an hour in Kansas, $13.38 an hour in Texas and $18.88 an hour in Colorado, Hickman said.
About 30 percent of correctional workers in Oklahoma qualify for food stamps and about 85 percent of the staff qualifies for school lunch programs, he said.
Janice Melton, warden of the Charles E. “Bill” Johnson Correctional Center at Alva, said it has been difficult to recruit and retain workers the past couple years because of the increase in natural gas and oil activity. Correctional officers can double and sometimes triple their salaries by taking an oil-field job, she said.
Correctional officers can increase their pay if they attain the rank of corporal, which can take 18 months, but after that there is no pay increase. Officers 18 months on the job can be making as much as officers with several years' experience, Martin said.
State employees have not had an across-the-board raise since October 2006.
Melton said correctional officers and workers realize the state went through revenue shortfalls, but the lack of a pay raise for six years does cause morale problems.
“They want to feel they're valued for what they do,” she said.
Martin said correctional officers at Conner recently switched to 12-hour shifts with a mandatory 60-hour workweek.
The fatigue and stress of the job is as much a factor as low pay for officers who quit to work elsewhere, he said. He has 85 correctional officers; his prison is funded for 102.
“A guy can go over and be a security officer at a casino for $14.50 an hour, and I'm paying 11,” Martin said. “You go to a casino, and it's a lot less stressful.”