The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 17, 2014

Crabtree warden speaks of overcrowding, understaffing

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — James Crabtree Correctional Center Warden Janet Dowling is having a hard time getting enough people to fill all the open positions at her facility.

Dowling spoke Friday to Enid Noon AMBUCS about the history of Crabtree, overcrowding and understaffing.

She said it was difficult to explain the employment situation at the prison because she is authorized for 212 fill-time employees. However, budget constraints require her to have fewer employees.

“We are required, in order to live within our budget of our agency, I can go no higher than 68 percent of our staff budget,” she said. “To stay within budget, I can hire no more than 145 staff at that institution.”

Dowling said with the booming oil and gas industry near Helena, she is unable to meet even that lower level of staffing and has a total staff of 121.

“At the agency, we have not had any raises for seven years,” she said. “Starting pay for a correctional officer at my facility is $11.83 an hour.”

Dowling said she had 60 correctional officers to oversee 1,010 inmates. Those officers work 12-hour shifts and 20 hours of mandatory overtime each week. She has 28 open positions at the facility and 61 support staff.

“I can tell you my staffing level on the best days is 15 on the day shift and 12 on the night shift to watch 1,010 inmates,” she said. “Recruitment and retention are a very large challenge for us, especially at the Department of Corrections.”

Dowling said the usually low unemployment rates in northwest Oklahoma, the current oil and gas boom and being able to find candidates that can meet requirements for the job make it difficult to find employees.

“It’s been my experience, even in Enid, there are a lot of people unaware there is a large prison west of here,” she said. “Most people are surprised there is a large prison nearby.”

Dowling said the prison is attempting to make the hiring process at the facility more like private businesses, instead of going through a three- to four-week state employment process.

The warden also said the number of prisoners continues to increase.

She said Department of Corrections in November 2013, the latest information available, housed 18,098 inmates in 17 public prisons and three private prisons statewide. There are an additional 21,202 on probation and another 3,157 on parole.

“Let’s be smarter on crime. Let’s lock up people that are actually a danger to us and not just the people we are mad at,” Dowling said, noting less than half (48.4 percent) of Oklahoma prisoners are violent offenders.

Dowling said she has 25 to 30 inmates serving sentences of life without parole; 150 serving life sentences; and 500 inmates serving 85 percent crimes, or crimes that require 85 percent of a sentence to be served before being considered for parole or other credits for time served.

“Our population is growing and our population is growing older,” Dowling said.

In 1980, Oklahoma prisons had about 85 inmates who were 56 years old or older. In 2012, that number has ballooned to 1,949 inmates 56 years old or older.

She said the medical needs of older inmates, who also tend to have more issues than those who are not incarcerated, only increases costs.

Dowling said the inmates at Crabtree also work to produce products in the facility for Bridge Project, garden or farms.

She said inmates in the Bridge Project make items, such as toys and blankets, which keeps them out of trouble.

“They will make afghans we send to the nursing home and stuffed toys for children that we send to the children’s home,’ Dowling said. “It is important you have some sense of purpose. This is a way to keep some people occupied in a service and allows them to give back to some people who are less fortunate than they are.”

Dowling said James Crabtree Correctional Center also has about 1,000 acres of land it uses for a gardening, raising beef and grain production.

“Last year, we grew 35,000 pounds of onions,” Dowling said. “Those onions were picked, chopped and flash frozen and sent to all our other institutions.”

She said the inmates also grow tomatoes, squash, turnips and greens that are served to inmates at Crabtree and other facilities.

“The more we can grow ourselves, the less costs we have,” she said.

Dowling said DOC also has a beef processing plant to produce food for offenders from cattle they raise. She assured those at AMBUCS the beef is either ground or made into luncheon meat.

“We’re not serving them steaks or roast,” she said with a smile.

“At our facility, we also have a corn dog factory. We make corn dogs,” she said. “Those can be bought by any public agency in the state.”

The actual ground where James Crabtree Correctional Center is located has a history of public service older than the state of Oklahoma, Dowling said.

The grounds were home to Woods County High School in 1904 and Alfalfa County High School four years later. From 1910 to 1917, the land was home to Connell State School of Agriculture. In 1924, the grounds were home to Western Oklahoma School for Children, an orphanage.

“Some of those buildings from that era we still use today,” Dowling said.

From 1947 until 1982, the grounds were home to the Helena State Boys School. The land was turned over to Department of Corrections in 1983 and has been home to James Crabtree Correctional Center ever since.

Dowling said the medium-security facility currently houses 1,010 inmate, 810 of whom are medium security and the remaining 200 minimum security.

She said the facility also has three crews that work for local cities and towns.

“That helps those small communities that do not have resources of their own have more employees to do work around their town,” Dowling said.

Dowling also fielded questions from AMBUCS after her presentation. One member asked what could be done to reduce the number of people being incarcerated.

“I would say we need to get smarter on crime. In my opinion, we need to do better at picking out who would do better in community diversion programs,” she said. “In institutions, because of cuts to funds, programming has been cut drastically. If you have to choose between feeding someone or treating them, you’re going to feed them.”

 Another member asked Dowling her views about privatization of prisons.

“At my facility and all medium-security facilities, our average per diem to keep them incarcerated in November 2012 was $28.94 per day, per offender,” she said.

She said the per diem for two private prisons for the same circumstances was $44.03.

However, Dowling did recognize there was no more space for new inmates.

“The Department of Corrections does not have enough beds. We have more offenders than beds. I don’t have any place to put the inmates,” she said. “I would be putting them in the gym. I would be putting them in non-secure buildings.”