GRANITE — The Oklahoma State Reformatory here was built in 1909, and its stone walls seem old.
The 1,000 inmates housed within those walls are also on the old side.
In July 2012, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections removed every inmate under the age of 40, sent them to other facilities and replaced them with older offenders. The move came after guards at the understaffed prison struggled to combat high levels of violence.
That shift appears to be working.
According to incident reports, in 2012, the medium-security facility in far western Oklahoma had 27 cases of battery, 53 cases of intentional injury and 35 assaults.
Part of the problem was a difficulty filling dozens of correctional officer and staff positions, Warden Tracy McCollum said.
Officers at the state reformatory start off making around $11 per hour. People either found better paying work in the oil fields or were reluctant to work at a place known for physical assaults, both among prisoners and on officers.
“That's all people knew about us,” McCollum said. “You came to work constantly with the thought of violence on your mind.”
Since the transition to older inmates, there have only been seven recorded incidents of violence, Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said. Of those, only three were considered severe.
McCollum said that while he has seen an increase in hiring over the last year, he still has nearly two dozen empty correctional officer positions. That fact was clear on a recent tour of the prison. In the yard, inmates mingle and the only officers visible stand in towers along the prison's walls.
McCollum said he would like to have more guards patrolling the area, but he also said that since the switch he feels safe interacting with inmates.
“Violence has gone to virtually nothing,” McCollum said. “Now, it's not a constant state of ‘Oh my god, what's going to happen.'”
He said the older inmates simply seem calmer and less inclined toward violence than the younger inmates.
Several staff and guards agreed. Dionne Blackmon is in charge of the prison's kitchen. Blackmon said that while she feels safe, the lack of officers on duty does require her to step in to hazardous situations.
“You can't just stand by and let them hurt each other,” Blackmon said.
Paul David Revels, 64, is serving time on multiple robbery and firearms-related charges. Revels said he had spent time at several facilities and found Oklahoma State Reformatory to be among the safest. Revels said his main complaint was the lack of medical services.
The small medical facility on site also has trouble filling staff positions, said Christi Vick, who runs the facility. Their offices are not open 24 hours and do not provide care for some more severe ailments or conditions. The prison is often forced to send inmates away to hospitals, sometimes across the state.
Since the switch to older prisoners, the state reformatory has seen notable increases in many medical needs. In the year after the transition, the monthly average for cardiovascular illnesses treated increased by more than 800 percent, at 166 visits per month. Liver disease visits more than tripled. The total number of medical visits have more than doubled.
Mental illness also has become a greater issue, McCollum said.
From June 2011 to June 2013, inmates at the state reformatory classified as having mental health needs or a history of mental illness increased by almost 45 percent.
OSR may be a snapshot of an aging trend happening in the state's prisons. According to a 2012 Department of Corrections annual report, 20 percent of the state's prisoners were 50 and older, compared to 5 percent in 1980. That report said 4,484 inmates were 50 and older and estimated that number would rise to 5,254 by the end of 2013. In 2012 inmate health care expenses in the state prison system totaled $59.4 million, compared to $34.2 million in 2000.