Persuaded by his two uncles, both veteran state corrections officers, Tommy Thompson applied to work at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the spring of 2018. He breezed through a six-week training period and was promoted from cadet to officer by late summer.
Thompson said he took pride in protecting the public from some of the state’s most notorious prisoners, many of whom are serving out life sentences or facing capital punishment. But the most dangerous part of his workday might have been the 48-mile commute back to his Holdenville home.
“I actually blew a tire on the side of the road one time almost falling asleep,” Thompson said, citing extreme fatigue after working a 12-hour shift.
Thompson quit after five months to work on a friend’s cattle ranch, a job which offered a shorter commute and better work-life balance. He said he’s now training to become a police officer.
“I know DOC is short-staffed, but at the same time, they’re getting short-staffed because they’re not letting officers have that little bit of time to rest up,” Thompson said. “I got a 13-year-old daughter, and she was 10 when I was at OSP, and I missed cheerleading and a lot of stuff because I was sleeping all the time. I was so exhausted my body couldn’t catch up.”
Oklahoma is facing a significant shortage of corrections officers, an ongoing problem advocates warn is causing widespread burnout among existing workers and is putting everyone who lives and works in state prisons at risk.
The corrections department spent $19.4 million on overtime pay in fiscal year 2020, up 46% from fiscal year 2017. As of June 17, the agency had funding to fill 314 vacant correctional officer positions.
Prison staffers at most facilities work 12-hour shifts, five to six days per week, with occasional double shifts of up to 16 hours. If officers are working more than two 16-hour shifts per week, state law mandates that the corrections director must declare a staffing emergency. There’s been one staffing emergency the past six months that has since been resolved, agency spokesman Justin Wolf said.
“They’re working the guys to death,” said Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group. “They make a mistake and the next thing they want to do is discipline. Or they fight with an inmate and they get into trouble. This never would have happened if they had enough people.”
State Rep. Justin Humphrey (R-Lane), chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said he’s received several calls from corrections officers who are fed up with the job and tired of working excessive hours. On Friday he issued a press release calling for a state of emergency to be declared in state prisons, arguing that low staffing numbers have elevated the risk of riots and violence.
“If there’s nobody watching, inmates start policing themselves,” Humphrey, who worked for the Department of Corrections for 20 years before pursuing public office, said in an interview.
Wolf said the agency often competes with the oil industry and other public safety jobs to recruit and retain workers. As more Oklahomans move to metropolitan areas, the number of people living near state prisons is steadily declining.
“Staffing is always a challenge, especially considering that a lot of our prisons are in rural communities that don’t have the workforce populations that you might have in Oklahoma City or Tulsa,” he said.
The legislature last month passed House Bill 2908, a measure that directs the Department of Corrections to spend $8 million in F.Y. 2022 or 2023 to improve the ratio of correctional officers to prisoners. The funds could be used to implement an agency-wide pay raise for corrections officers or provide sign-on bonuses to new hires.
According to Cleveland, $8 million is enough to raise the starting wage for corrections officers to at least $17 an hour, which could attract more young people to a career in corrections.
“The benefits they offer are much better than anyone else has,” Cleveland said. “But at the same time, when you take a look at the average 21-year-old, he thinks he’s bulletproof.”
Retention A Challenge
During a 2016 interim study, former prisons director Joe Allbaugh blamed long hours and low pay for the agency’s 40% annual correctional officer turnover rate. Corrections administrators could not immediately provide Oklahoma Watch with an updated figure.
Oklahoma Watch spoke with four former state corrections officers, as Department of Corrections policy forbids prison employees from speaking to the media about their jobs.
The former officers said they enjoyed their day-to-day work and felt like they were making a positive contribution to society. They said they received good health and life insurance benefits and opportunities for raises and advancement surpassed what’s typically offered at entry-level retail and restaurant jobs.
Their motivation for leaving the agency varied. Two former officers, including Thompson, said excessive overtime hours took a toll on their mental health and relationships with family members and ultimately pushed them to quit.
The other two said they could handle the extra hours and appreciated a larger paycheck, but ultimately grew frustrated with management and working conditions caused by understaffing.
A surge in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and lagging vaccine uptake is hitting Oklahoma just in time for back to school. And schools can’t require masks unless Gov. Stitt declares another state of emergency.
Trent Boggess worked at the Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington from February 2018 through February 2019. He said he decided to quit his job after he was denied bereavement leave to attend his grandfather’s funeral.
“I loved working in a correctional facility, being able to help inmates that I knew would not come back and not make the same mistakes,” Boggess said. “That was my purpose. I wanted to help the people that didn’t want to stay in that kind of life. But it was the management that drove me to abandon this kind of work.”
Responding to Boggess’ claim, Wolf said it’s unlikely such a request would be denied due to low staffing but could be denied if an employee has taken too many sick or personal days.
Kenneth Manning, then 20 years old and interested in a law enforcement career, applied to work at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center in 2018. Weeks after being hired on and graduating from the agency’s training academy, he said he was tasked with overseeing entire housing units on his own.
Manning said he wasn’t scared to work alone but would have felt better having another officer to back him up. He left after a little over a year to enlist in the military.
“Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t matter how many people there are, they [prisoners] are still going to do something if they want to,” he said. “But most of the time, just having more of a presence, the better your odds are.”
Pay, Morale Key Issues
Former officers, their advocates and the Department of Corrections agree—not everyone is cut out to work in a prison environment.
A 2013 Department of Justice study found that corrections officers are assaulted on the job more than any other profession besides police officers. Prison workers also face an elevated risk of depression, suicide and PTSD, according to a 2017 report from researchers at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Policy.
Entry-level correctional officers earn $2,727.77 per month or $15.74 per hour. The hourly wage increases to $16.52 after six months of employment and $17.35 after 18 months.
Border states Texas, Kansas and New Mexico all pay their correctional officers a higher starting salary. Colorado, which has a marginally higher cost of living than Oklahoma, pays its correctional officers at least $50,000 per year.
In 2019, Oklahoma lawmakers approved a $2 an hour pay raise for corrections officers and other prison support staff. But as inflation rises and service industry employers boost wages to attract and retain workers, the starting wage for corrections officers has become less competitive.
“If you’re paying $15.75 an hour and Costco is paying $16 an hour, people ain’t coming,” Humphrey said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Wolf said the agency is aware that pay is directly connected to its ability to recruit and retain staff and it will continue to explore options to remain a competitive career option.
Interim studies, set to take place from August through November, often help guide future legislation.
While a starting pay increase would likely boost job applicants, advocates say the corrections department also needs to focus on improving morale and culture inside facilities if it wants to retain its best workers.
“The way you get people is they start talking to their friends and saying ‘hey, you ought to come work for DOC, they really treat you nice’,” Cleveland said. “But right now you don’t get that.”
Thompson, who worked at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for five months, said he felt unfairly targeted and scrutinized by senior officers after he graduated from academy.
“It makes you feel like you’re being downgraded and not worth anything,” he said. “A lot of that change has to start in Oklahoma City with the supervisors.”
The corrections department is aware of low staff morale at certain facilities, Wolf said. He said Justin Farris, the agency’s chief of operations, has begun meeting in-person with staff at several prisons and is working on an agency-wide strategy to improve communication.
Violent Incident Raises Concerns
On June 4, a medium-security prisoner at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre assaulted six of his pod mates with a makeshift knife. The incident briefly caused the entire state corrections system to go on lockdown.
All six victims were transported to a nearby hospital and treated for non-life threatening lacerations. No corrections officers were injured.
North Fork, located in far western Oklahoma 25 miles from the Texas border, has faced significant staffing shortages since the Department of Corrections moved prisoners there in 2016. In 2018, 52% of positions at the facility were vacant. The facility has operated with as few as 20 correctional officers supervising more than 2,500 prisoners, according to the corrections department.
Numerous high profile assaults have occurred at North Fork over the past 18 months. In November, it was one of three prisons where coordinated gang fights broke out, prompting an eight-week lockdown. In May 2020, several prisoners assaulted an opposing gang member in their housing unit, which put the facility on lockdown.
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As the incidents pile up, Cleveland worries that the state’s prison system is becoming increasingly vulnerable.
“I know people in the prison system that say we’re ripe for a riot and they’re scared to go to work every day,” he said.
According to Wolf, there’s no corrections department data that shows a link between low staffing and increased assaults. If a facility is particularly short on corrections officers, he said officials will restrict prisoner movement until more staff can come in.
“A great example of something that could happen that brings you down to that number is COVID, staff start getting infected or something like that,” Wolf said. “So if staff aren’t able to come to work or we have an increased number of call-ins, if it gets below the safe threshold to operate the prison, we’ll go into lockdown.”
While locking down a prison can be a temporary solution to a sudden staff shortage, experts warn that extended lockdown periods can worsen mental and physical health among prisoner populations.
A Nationwide Issue
Oklahoma isn’t alone in its struggle to keep its prisons fully staffed.
Last month The Associated Press reported that nurses, teachers and cooks at some federal prisons were overseeing prisoners due to a widespread shortage of corrections officers. Corrections officials in Wisconsin have started relocating officers to a maximum-security prison where 45% of job openings are unfilled.
The solution could be as simple as paying officers more and making sure their mental health is taken care of.
In Pennsylvania, just 1% of corrections officer positions were unfilled in August 2019. The state pays its officers an average salary of $63,360, nearly $20,000 higher than the national average. John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, told CBS News that the agency has also made mental health counselors available at facilities.
A substantial pay raise for Oklahoma corrections officers would have to be approved and appropriated through the legislature, which doesn’t meet convene until February.
In the meantime, corrections department administrators say they’re working to address the staffing issue by reaching out directly to officers. Earlier this month the agency organized a correctional officer focus group to find out what changes could lead to a higher retention rate.
Boggess, now working as a dispatcher for the Noble Police Department, said a good start for corrections officials would be to address employee mental health and recognize the consequences of long overtime hours.
“People who are correctional officers, it doesn’t just stay at the prison or the facility, it comes home,” he said. “And because of how short-staffed and the hours they work, it ruins relationships.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss