LEXINGTON — Like most Oklahoma correctional officers, Sgt. James Caskey works a minimum of 60 hours a week and sometimes doesn’t get enough sleep.
Less than a mile from home, he fell asleep while driving to work at 5 p.m. on Dec. 30. He woke up when his truck sideswiped a mailbox at 55 mph.
He wasn’t hurt, but the accident has eerie similarities to two other wrecks involving correctional officers, and those crashes had fatal results. Are the extremely long hours prison guards work making them a potential hazard on the road?
Caskey says the answer is yes.
Correctional officer Ryan Peacock, 30, died April 30 on State Highway 39 near Wanette while on his way to work at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.
“He was an Eagle Scout of all things,” Caskey said. “We were able to hire an Eagle Scout and then we worked him to death.”
Peacock, who lived in Pauls Valley, was 13 miles away from the prison where he worked when his vehicle left the roadway and hit a tree. While the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is still compiling a report on the crash, Caskey said he feels certain Peacock fell asleep at the wheel.
Caskey, 50, lives in the Lexington area about six miles from where he works at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center. He said he was surprised at his own accident.
“I left the roadway and hit a mailbox,” he said. “It tore the passenger side mirror off my truck. The only thing that got hurt was the mailbox, the mirror and a little bit of my pride.
“You don’t expect to doze off on the way to work.”
While he escaped without injury, a much more serious accident involving a correctional officer occurred on Dec. 9, 2010, on State Highway 74 about four miles north of Maysville.
A vehicle driven by James Keesee, 37, a correctional officer at Joseph Harp, crossed the center median and collided with a vehicle driven by Shila Minyard, 39, wife of Maysville Police Chief Randy Minyard. Shila Minyard and Keesee died. Minyard’s son, Trevor, then 10, was taken by helicopter to OU Medical Center in critical condition after the wreck.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol report on the accident indicates Keesee’s vehicle drifted into oncoming traffic “for an unknown reason” and left no skid marks.
His widow, Kristy Keesee, said her husband worked a year of overnight shifts before the accident and was often asked to work overtime, but did not work overtime immediately preceding the 6:38 a.m. accident.
“He worked the graveyard shift and was driving home and fell asleep at the wheel, I was told,” she said.
She works in the radiology department at Lindsay Municipal Hospital and frequently sees correctional officers come in, escorting prisoners who need medical care.
As the officers leave, she makes sure to tell them to drive carefully.
“I’ve had officers fall asleep in the chair because they are so tired,” she said. “I ask if there’s another officer with them or I give them a cup of coffee.”
She said the state needs to raise pay for corrections officers to draw more applicants for open positions so less overtime would be required.
The state Legislature is considering giving these workers their first raise in eight years. Their pay starts at $11.83 an hour. A bill for targeted pay hikes has passed the state House and is pending in the Senate.
She said she is friends with many of the officers and feels the state and the Corrections Department are not doing enough for them.
“They are basically working their employees to death in some cases,” she said.
Caskey filed a job grievance after he ran into the mailbox. He complained the 20 hours of overtime he is forced to work each week leaves him concerned for his safety.
In an interview, he explained that long hours can lead to judgment errors or slowed reaction time and said these problems may have factored into other traffic accidents, including one on March 4 in Atoka County that injured two corrections officers and seven inmates.
Their van was hit by a tractor-trailer. Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers said the accident occurred when the officer driving the van was trying to make a U-turn and pulled in front of a tractor-trailer.
The response to Caskey’s grievance indicated the long hours were beyond the Corrections Department’s control.
“While your concerns about adequate agency funding and staffing levels are understood, I can only address issues within the scope of the Department of Correction’s control,” Janice Melton, a warden with the department, stated in the response.
“The agency continues its efforts to ensure the safety and security of our staff and facilities as well as increasing the efficiency of the agency’s processes to include: Initiatives to secure more funding to improve staffing levels adding/upgrading security equipment and systems, and streamlining the hiring processes.”
Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said it does not keep records on traffic accidents involving correctional officers and it does not have any specific program encouraging driver safety.