LEXINGTON — Corrections officer Joshua Sparks reports at 6 a.m. for a work shift that is supposed to end at 6 p.m. but often goes three or four hours longer. By the time he makes it around a long road detour and back home to Purcell, all he can do is fall into bed, go to sleep and get ready for work again.
Such is life for state Corrections Department employees. With pay starting at $11.83 an hour, it is so hard to recruit and retain people that massive overtime is required.
The Oklahoma Legislature is considering giving these workers their first raise in eight years. A bill for targeted pay hikes has passed the Oklahoma House and is pending in the Senate. The size of the potential raises is yet to be determined.
Gov. Mary Fallin has proposed raises for troopers and child welfare workers, and budget negotiators are also looking at a potential increase for correctional workers.
“It will take several years to address all the needs, but the governor is hopeful some first steps will be taken this year and in the future,” said Alex Weintz, her spokesman.
Any improvement in pay or reduction in workload can’t come too soon for Sparks, who works at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center. His normal work week is five, 12-hour shifts, but sometimes he is asked to stay longer because of short staffing or to accompany an inmate having a medical procedure, so-called “hospital watch.”
“You’re just tired, you’re beat, you’re worn out,” said Sparks, 24. “Because of the long work hours, and stuff, I’ve recently been going through a breakup.
“I’ve just been working my butt off you know to try to make ends meet.”
He sold his V-8 truck and bought an SUV with a smaller engine and better gas mileage. The cost of fuel became staggering when a state bridge had to be closed for lengthy repairs and the 15-minute trip between his home in Purcell and the prison in Lexington turned into an hour-long drive.
Sparks is among a majority of the state’s 1,539 correctional officers required to work 60-hour weeks, said department spokesman Jerry Massie. These jobs can be difficult and dangerous and other positions in the oil fields and elsewhere simply pay more.
Robert Patton, the department’s executive director, said the department has spent $14.5 million on overtime over the past 12 months.
“This is the type of job that you need that home life balance,” he said. “You need to take care of yourself mentally and physically and you can’t do that working that many hours.”
The low pay and long hours can also lead to poor morale.
“People don’t want to go to work,” Sparks said. “They don’t want to deal with the supervisors. They don’t want to deal with the inmates and the problems and thinking about having to stay over for more hours because the next shift doesn’t have the officers or going on a hospital watch for 15 or 16 hours and then waking up five hours later and coming to work.”
Sean Wallace, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said a lack of staff is also causing security issues as support staff are put in bad situations or officers are required to manage too many inmates.
“We’ve had a couple of support staff assaulted in the last couple months,” he said. “One worker got two black eyes and a broken nose. Also, a support staff female was taken hostage with a knife to her throat by a couple inmates who were trying to get her in her car and drive off. Officers were able to intervene.”
Despite all the problems, Sparks said there are aspects of the job that remain rewarding.
“It’s just the people, the other correctional officers that keeps me there,” he said. “I just want to be there to keep them safe.”
Still, he said he has toyed with the idea of learning how to become a landscaper, and maybe even starting his own business.
“I really enjoy that kind of work, working with my hands,” he said.
“And then of course if I was my own boss, I could set my own hours, and never have to work a double again.”