It's notable that a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Hickman, is sounding the alarm over the shortage of correctional officers in Oklahoma prisons.
GOP members have generally led the tough-on-crime chorus at the Capitol, by doing such things as proposing and supporting laws that have expanded the list of crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. The party as a whole has been loath to consider sentencing reform or much of anything that might ease prison crowding.
We now have a prison system in which the inmate population remains perpetually within a whisker of capacity. Meantime the number of men and women watching those inmates continues to shrink. That's a bad formula, as Hickman, R-Fairview, made clear during an interim study hearing last week.
“Someone is going to die if we don't make some changes and make them sooner rather than later,” he said.
Low pay is at the root of the problem. Good-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry have lured many away from our prisons, but Hickman said that's only one factor. Correctional officers start out making $11.83 per hour, not much considering the work environment; the lawmaker said 30 percent of correctional workers qualify for food stamps.
The staffing gaps at our prisons are scary. The maximum-security state pen in McAlester, authorized to have 521 workers but funded for 363, is 50 shy of that total. The minimum-security prison at Fort Supply has 54 officers to monitor more than 1,000 inmates. The medium-security prison in Hominy has 17 fewer guards than it needs, and they all work 60-hour weeks.
The DOC is seeking $12.2 million more from the Legislature in order to fund 5 percent pay raises. Republicans control the Legislature and so they will of course be tugged at by many other constituencies asking for more money. But they need to remember Hickman's ominous warning. The DOC request merits serious consideration.