New report shines light on what could be growing Oklahoma prison problem

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OKLAHOMA (KFOR) – Local published reports said the Oklahoma Department of Corrections spent millions of dollars in overtime pay in fiscal year 2020, with some employees claiming they’re working two 16-hour shifts a week. The agency said it’s looking into if Oklahoma prisons are actually short staffed, and advocates say this is a dangerous situation.

“They love the impact they can make, it’s just in a lot of cases they don’t feel supported with the amount of hours they’re having to work,” said Oklahoma Watch reporter Keaton Ross.

When Ross crunched the DOC budget numbers, he said he found the agency spent $19.4 million dollars just in overtime pay in fiscal year 2020. That’s a 46 percent jump from fiscal year 2017.

He said some staffers claimed to work double shifts of up to 16 hours.

“This is really an indication that one, they can’t hire enough people. Two, the people that they have are just overworked,” Ross told KFOR.

“We don’t know if we’re understaffed,” said ODOC Chief Administrator of Communications, Justin Wolf. “That’s not assumed.”

Wolf said right now, Oklahoma prisons are completing staffing analysis to ensure the facilities are operating at the National American Correctional Association’s standards. The ODOC is hoping to have the full picture by 2022.

“We have over 20 facilities. So saying we’re understaffed is overly broad,” said Wolf. “There’s different facilities with different needs and different security levels. And the staffing needs at each facility are different.”

The DOC said more than 300 jobs are open, but it’s difficult to find people who are willing to do the tough job in rural Oklahoma.

“It’s just not a high density population to a workforce to necessarily support a prison facility,” said Wolf. “It’s not some place like Oklahoma City or Tulsa with a large population. If you find a place out in the rural community, there’s just not as many people to work.”

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Prison in Oklahoma.

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-District 19, said be believes Oklahoma has a massive shortage in correctional and probational officers.

“When you’re running an agency like this, to say you don’t know if you’re short-staffed, that’s a very alarming statement to me,” said Humphrey.

The former correctional and probational officer and chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee said his phone has been ringing off the hook with guards who are fed up.

“We should listen to the people who are there, to the professionals that are going in day after day and doing the job. People have failed to listen to them. I want to hear what they have to say,” he said.

On Friday, Humphrey called for a state of emergency to be declared in state prisons. He argued if prisons are low on staff, aggression will build.

“You’re going to see contraband increase. You’re going to see inmate violence increase. You’re going to see inmate-on-staff violence increase, and when you have those and a shortage of hands, then you’re going to look at the potential of riots are much greater,” said the representative.

Last month, lawmakers passed House Bill 2908, which would direct the ODOC to spend $8 million in fiscal year 2022 and 2023 to improve the ratio of correctional officers to prisoners. Those funds could be used for agency-wide pay raises or sign-on bonuses.

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