The growth in Oklahoma’s prison population over the past decade isn’t the only thing straining resources in the state Department of Corrections.
As the number of inmates housed in state-run facilities grew by 12 percent from 2006 to 2016, the number of corrections officers overseeing the offenders dropped by 14 percent.
This means there is now roughly one officer for every 11 inmates, compared with one for every 8.5 inmates in 2006.
During a legislative hearing Wednesday, corrections officials and lawmakers warned this could put officers in danger and drain state funds by increasing overtime pay and the amounts paid to counties for holding state inmates in jails.
“This is a huge public safety issue to us and to those officers,” said Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, who requested an interim study on corrections issues. “And we can’t have that because, at no fault of the officers, the inmates start running the prisons.”
The department’s staffing woes have persisted for years. An Oklahoma Watch investigation in 2013, for example, found that many overworked correction officers were reporting low morale and concerns about accidents.
Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh told the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee on Wednesday that not much has been done to alleviate the staffing issues.
State figures show the officers-to-inmates ratio in state prisons and community corrections and work centers rose every year from 2006 to 2015. The current ratio is down slightly from last year. That’s due in part to a soaring number of inmates being housed temporarily in county jails; the number rose from 325 in August 2015 to 1,568 in August 2016.
Allbaugh said because of funding constraints, his agency can fill only about 75 percent of its 5,238 authorized positions. Just maintaining that level is a struggle because the department has trouble attracting and retaining employees.
The turnover rate among corrections officers was 37 percent last year and stands at 39 percent this year – something “we cannot sustain as an agency,” Allbaugh said.
The problem isn’t confined to front-line corrections officers.
The number of probation and parole officers is down from a high of 345 in 2008 to 255 currently. Also, Allbaugh said, many state prisons, especially in rural areas, have trouble attracting and keeping medical staff.
The result is that the department must rely heavily rely on overtime pay, with some officers working 12-hour shifts.
Allbaugh said the staffing shortages highlight the need for using private prisons and county jails; the county jail backup costs the state $800,000 a month.
Allbaugh attributed part of the turnover rate to the stress of many jobs in which officers’ lives “are at risk every minute of every hour of the day.” But low pay also is to blame. The starting salary for corrections officers is $26,568 a year. Allbaugh said about a third of his agency’s employees qualify for food stamps.
On Tuesday, the Board of Corrections approved a one-time $1,750 stipend for all employees who have worked at the agency at least six months.
Allbaugh said he recommended the move, which he called a small step, despite the fact that the agency faces nearly $2 billion in infrastructure needs. He said it could be the only chance in the near future to offer a pay hike given the state’s budget situation.
To address low pay, Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, announced Wednesday she intends to introduce a bill next year that will revive a previous effort to ensure state employees earn at least 90 percent of private-sector pay.
“It is absolutely not acceptable to have state employees on food stamps,” she said. “If we don’t start this journey now, when are we going to have the impetus to do it?”
Osborn didn’t provide a total cost or say where the money would come from, but said raises could be phased in over several years If full funding isn’t immediately available. The state will likely face a budget shortfall next fiscal year.