The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 27, 2013

Prison crisis: State losing corrections officers due to low pay

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Safety in Oklahoma prisons has become a concern because of the lack of corrections officers available to oversee inmates.

The crisis is caused by several factors, including low pay, no raises and a failure to compete with the oilfield for employees, officials said.

At James Crabtree Correction Center in Helena, the inmate population has held at about 1,000 since 1982, said Warden Janet Dowling.

Crabtree is the only medium-security prison facility in the state that operates as a dormitory-style institution.

“We have 800 medium security and 200 minimum security offenders. Our most recent staffing numbers were 56 security officer and 61 support staff,” Dowling said.

Support staff are medical, clerical and food service personnel.

“The actual officers we have to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week average about 12 per shift,” she said.

The ideal number is 20, Dowling said.

Three years ago, Crabtree had 93 correctional officers, and today Dowling has trouble hiring for the positions that are open. When new officers are hired, there usually are others leaving for higher salaries elsewhere, she said. The starting salary at Crabtree for correctional officers is $11.43 per hour, and Dowling said she recently saw a newspaper advertisement for a nursing home hiring nurses aides for $14 per hour.

“Officers have a demanding job with difficult hours, and when we can’t pay competitively, it’s hard to attract quality people who can pass a background check,” Dowling said.

Although Crabtree is a medium-security prison, it is not immune to problems, she said. There are some behavioral issues to deal with, and Dowling said she has noticed an increase in contraband that is tied to the lack of a full complement of officers on shifts.

“It’s hard to patrol both sides of a housing unit and hard to keep track of 168 offenders in the dormitory,” Dowling said.

Being the only open-bay facility in the state presents its own problems, she said. Even though the area is fenced, if there is a large group disruption, there is no way to separate those involved or lock them in individual cells, she said.

The last raise prison workers received was seven years ago. Dowling estimated the economic impact of Crabtree on the community at $8,653,000 annually based on utilities paid, local purchasing and other items. Dowling said she is not sure what the problem is with legislative funding. She said she does not know if there is a large block of legislators who favor the use private prisons over state-run facilities.

“My greatest fear is having to call a staff member’s family and tell them he won’t be coming home because there was an incident here,” Dowling said. “We also have to protect offenders, and I don’t want to have to call an offender’s family and give them the same message.”

State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, and Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, have visited Crabtree and are pushing for higher wages for officers.

“It’s a dangerous situation. Most people have the impression the offenders are locked away and staff has minimal contact,” Dowling said. “Every staff person has significant offender contact all the time, 24 hours a day. Officers must be constantly vigil and still try to do what we can to help the offenders re-integrate into society.”

Anderson said Hickman is spearheading an effort to obtain additional funding for Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He has targeted pay increases and raising starting salaries, Anderson said.

“They have a terrible time competing with the oilfield, and I’m trying to help that cause,” Anderson said.

Hickman introduced legislation this session to raise DOC salaries, but it did not receive a hearing before the full the House. He now is working on a pay hike as an appropriations item, Anderson said.

Hickman said he is not optimistic anything will happen this session.

Gov. Mary Fallin, he said, wants to study all state employee salaries, and the Senate leadership is not going to address the issue until the study is done.

“It appears to me the leadership and the governor have shelved the discussion this year,” Hickman said.

Hickman said Crabtree has some 40 correctional officer positions open and no one applying for them because they can make more money elsewhere.

“There’s your study,” he said. “You don’t have to spend $200,000 on a study.”

Hickman said his fear is the situation with state prisons will reach the point where DOC will be taken over by a federal judge — which has been the case in Oklahoma in the past. Then, state officials will have no say in how much to appropriate to DOC, he said. They will have to provide what the judge says is needed.

“Governing by crisis is not a good way to run the prison system,” he said.

Anderson said he is concerned there is a statewide crisis that will surface soon, and he hopes it does not result in someone being injured or killed. The majority of facilities in the state have staffing issues, he said.

“My biggest concern is when temperatures rise in the summer and tempers get short, something unfortunate could happen that endangers officers and other inmates. I believe the Legislature needs to fund the Department of Corrections to meet the demand we have,” Anderson said.

Warden William Monday at William S. Key Correction Center in Fort Supply said he has the same personnel problems and is short about 30 officers. The offender population is 1,087, with 44 officers currently on payroll. He could have up to 77 officers.

“We can’t find employees to come through the door due to low salaries and not being competitive with the oilfield market,” Monday said.

Key is a minimum-security facility, but the lack of staff still creates problems, Monday said. Key has had several escapes, Monday said, and in some instances, if there were more guards, it would be easier to cover areas to be sure inmates don’t walk away. Most of the escapes are during mealtime when most of the officers are in the dining hall, he said.

“They take advantage of being short-handed then,” Monday said.

Monday said he is trying to hire as many employees as he has positions for. Non-uniformed employees are not as critical as security posts, he said. Starting salary is $11.82 an hour, and most oilfield jobs will start at $15 or more per hour.

“It’s hard competing against them. The biggest thing is they will have great benefits, but in this day and age the young adult population isn’t worried about benefits as much as they are salary,” he said.

Monday said DOC is trying to obtain funding to hire more people, but has a limited budget and cannot afford to give raises without legislative help. Three years ago, as part of major budget cuts, DOC employees also faced furloughs.

“That took more money out of the employees’ pockets to make the budget stretch,” Monday said. “They took furlough each month for nine or 10 months.”

He said the last time DOC employees received a raise, gasoline was $1.94 per gallon and now it is the $3.60 range. Plus, everything else they have to purchase has gone up.