Teenagers, fresh out of high school, could be hired to guard and oversee hardened criminals in Oklahoma’s chronically overcrowded and understaffed prisons.

In a little-noticed action, the Oklahoma Board of Corrections passed a set of legislative requests earlier this month that include allowing prisons to hire corrections officials as young as 18.  Currently the minimum age is 20. 

The Department of Correction has struggled for years to attract and retain workers for the job, which now starts with a salary of just under $33,000 a year.  

Despite a $2-per-hour raise passed earlier this year, the department recently announced it continues to struggle to fill hundreds of positions throughout the state.

It’s too early to tell if the Legislature will take up the request to lower the minimum age during next year’s session. But the proposal already is raising this question both within and outside of the prison system: Are 18- or 19-year-olds able to perform such a potentially dangerous and sensitive job?

“It is scary to think about teenagers being in these positions of power in a system where they have limited resources,” said Nicole McAfee, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “That’s putting a lot of responsibilities, as well as liabilities, in their hands.”  

A guard sits outside a cell on suicide watch at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Deploying New Strategies  

With almost 18,800 inmates in state corrections facilities, Oklahoma employs about one correctional officer for every 11 inmates.

Although that is down from more than 15 inmates per correctional officer five years ago, prison officials continually fight to attract and retain workers. Department of Corrections budget documents show only about 25 percent of correctional workers have more than five years of experience.  

Agency spokeswoman Jessica Brown said the department regularly loses workers to other public-safety jobs, such as police officers, that usually offer higher wages. Because the age limit is 19 to apply at many police departments and the military allows people to enlist at 17 with parental consent, many young people don’t even look at corrections as a career path, she said.   

Brown said the recent salary bump helped “tremendously” to make the job more attractive. Absent another pay raise, she said the department sees moving the minimum age requirement as one of the top ways to attract more applicants. 

“Lowering the age from 20 to 18 wouldn’t necessarily mean we are going to hire every 18-year-old who applies,” she said. “We want to look at it on a case-by-case basis since we know every individual matures at different rates.”  

Brown added the positions would still require a high school degree or its equivalent. 

A view of the law library, mailroom and other buildings on the Joseph Harp Correctional Center campus in Lexington. Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

How Young Is Too Young? 

Oklahoma wouldn’t be alone if it lowered the minimum age requirement for correctional officials. 

Brown said Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Florida are among states that set their minimum age at 18. But most states, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, have higher age limits. 

Even the suggestion of hiring teenagers in these roles is causing concern among rank-and-file corrections workers.   

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the statewide organization for Corrections Department staffers, said he hasn’t talked to single correctional officer who supports the move.   

Cleveland said raising pay is the solution to fixing the department’s staffing woes. If corrections officers had to choose, they would prefer having the best people in the job to being closer to fully staffed, he said.

“They want someone they can trust, someone who they can depend on,” he said. “Because this is a hard job: it’s stressful, it’s dangerous and there’s nothing easy about it.”  

Cleveland, a former state lawmaker, said he could support teenagers working within the prison system if they are restricted to certain lower-risk roles with the department.  

“I think it could be a good idea for some,” he said. “If someone doesn’t want to go to college or do whatever, there are plenty of things they can do in the prison system.” 

McAfee, of the ACLU, said the proposal also is troubling because of what it represents.  

As lawmakers continue to work on criminal justice reform, policymakers should focus more on reducing the number of incarcerated Oklahomans than trying to increase the number of correctional officers who oversee them, she said.  

“We should be asking why there is a need for all these correctional officers in the first place,” she said. “We need to have a broader conversation about our attitude towards prisons in Oklahoma.” 

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