The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

July 12, 2014

Okla. officers concerned about prison overcrowding

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s prisons could end up dangerously understaffed if proposed cost-saving measures take effect, according to a group that represents Oklahoma correctional officers.

In a letter to Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals said it has “grave concerns” about plans to eliminate 12-hour shifts by reducing the number of officers required on security posts.

Oklahoma has struggled to keep its prisons staffed while its inmate population rises. A 2013 survey showed the state’s ratio of correctional officers to offenders was the worst among at least 49 states, the Tulsa World reported Saturday.

In recent years, DOC turned to 12-hour instead of eight-hour shifts to keep posts filled at several of the state’s prisons.

Sean Wallace, director of OCP, said the agency previously justified the switch to 12-hour shifts by saying it didn’t have enough staff and couldn’t afford the overtime officers were earning.

The agency has gained about 13 additional officers since that time, Wallace said. Meanwhile, the prison population grew by at least 1,100, he said.

“We fail to see what has changed that would allow the agency to now go back to eight-hour shifts,” he said.

Corrections officers are worried about safety, he said. In the letter, Wallace points out recent employee assaults at Joseph Harp Correctional Center and Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.

The group’s letter points out that Patton took office earlier this year with the stated goal of “addressing the dismal morale amongst the rank-and-file employees” as well as eliminating 12-hour shifts.

“You also acknowledged that the only way to accomplish this goal would be by increasing the number of officers and gaining the required additional funding to hire them,” the letter states. Officers worked an “unprecedented” amount of overtime in fiscal year 2014, according to OCP.

Jerry Massie, spokesman for DOC, said the agency wants to reduce overtime hours worked by officers and end the 12-hour shifts, but there’s no timetable for when that might happen.

“Obviously, you need the staff do it,” Massie said.

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