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Next big quake in Oklahoma may come from prisons, not underground

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: December 31, 2013

TWO news stories published Friday got our attention for their unintentional yet apparent similarities. One was about being prepared for a major earthquake in Oklahoma and the other was about being prepared to keep prisoners behind bars.

Public safety is the common thread in these disparate issues, but only one — corrections policy — can be effectively and realistically managed. Yet Gov. Mary Fallin's general counsel, Steve Mullins, seems relatively unconcerned about a corrections system in which only 60 percent of staff positions are filled.

The boldest thing that a Department of Corrections spokesman could say in reaction to Mullins' comments is that staffing levels “present the department with management issues.” But name another state agency in which a severe staffing shortage not only presents “management issues” but outright threats to public safety. The Highway Patrol would qualify and, perhaps, the state Department of Health.

Nowhere is a staffing shortage more acute than in corrections, and this is a long-standing problem. Indeed, Oklahoma is fortunate that it has avoided a major prison riot, multiple escapes of dangerous convicts or attacks on correctional officers. It may be just a matter of when rather than if.

Skirmishes happen now and again, some making more news than others. A few days before Mullins offered his take on prison security, a female case worker was assaulted at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. David Ramsey, president of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, which represents prison guards, noted that the unit where the case worker was housed had 160 inmates but only one correctional officer present.

That isn't all that unusual, given how difficult it is to recruit and retain corrections officers. Starting pay is $11.83 per hour; double-shifts are routine. Sixty-hour workweeks are mandatory at several prisons. Long hours, low pay and a challenging working environment are tough on morale. And even if the DOC had enough people to fill every slot, it's only budgeted to fill 67 percent of them this year.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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