State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, has spent much of the summer sounding the alarm over Oklahoma’s prison understaffing problem.
On June 18 he asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to declare a state of emergency, arguing that low staffing numbers have elevated the risk of riots and violence in state prisons. He’s appeared on weekly Facebook Live broadcasts with Bobby Cleveland, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, to provide updates on what he’s hearing from prison workers.
Humphrey’s work will continue this fall when he hosts an interim study on prison staffing and other areas of improvement to the Department of Corrections. He said his goal is to bring criminal justice reform advocates, corrections department workers and other stakeholders together to brainstorm possible solutions.
“It’s just unbelievable, these guys are working like crazy,” said Humphrey, a former Department of Corrections employee who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. “I looked at one [timesheet] and out of 96 hours this guy had worked 60 hours.”
On June 21 Oklahoma Watch published an in-depth report on the state’s struggle to hire and retain prison workers. Two former corrections officers quoted in the article said they found their job fulfilling but excessive hours took a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing. Two others said they could handle the overtime but became frustrated with management and decided to leave.
The state paid $19.4 million in overtime wages to corrections department employees in 2020, up 46% from 2017. Corrections officials say hiring and retaining workers can be challenging due to the difficult nature of the job and because most prisons are located in sparsely populated areas. The starting hourly wage for a correctional officer recruit is $15.74 an hour.
The agency has not released an official count of corrections officers. As of mid-June, the corrections department had 314 fully-funded, vacant positions.
The Legislature approved H.B. 2908, a line-item budget item last session that mandates the Department of Corrections spend $8 million annually to improve its correctional officer to prisoner ratio.
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Humphrey says he’ll seek answers on how the corrections department plans to spend those funds while addressing other transparency-related issues. The agency has faced criticism from several lawmakers over its decision to close the William S. Key Correctional Center without legislative input. During a June 29 Senate hearing, corrections officials said they planned to inform lawmakers of their decision but an exclusive report by the Woodward News thwarted that plan.
Seventeen other interim studies on criminal justice issues take place from August through early November. These studies, requested by members of the House and Senate and approved by chamber leadership, don’t usually generate official reports or recommendations but often help guide future legislation. Official meeting times and locations will be posted on the House and Senate websites.
Here are five other studies worth tracking:
Treatment of Prisoners and Corrections Staff
Requested by: Reps. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City and Justin Humphrey, R-Lane
This study will explore ways to improve the safety, wellbeing and treatment of prisoners and correctional officers.
Last fall and winter, state prisoners and their family members complained that corrections staff weren’t following pandemic protocols and that prisoners were receiving small, carbohydrate-heavy meals. Meanwhile, correctional officers worry that persistent understaffing could cause a spike in prisoner-on-staff violence.
Advocates have also raised concerns over conditions at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. During a February inspection, state health department investigators discovered mold, bedbugs and cockroaches in several housing units. Jail administrators who submitted a corrective action report in early June say they’ve ramped up efforts to hire more staff and keep housing units clean.
Former prisoners and correctional officers will be invited to participate in the meeting, according to the study proposal.
Criminal Sentencing Reform
Requested by: Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa
This study (IS-2021-13) will look at felony classification systems in other states and how sentencing reform could help reduce Oklahoma’s prison population.
Oklahoma is among the few states that don’t group felony offenses by severity. For example, in Texas the most serious non-capital offenses are classified as first-degree felonies punishable by five years to life in prison. Each crime in Oklahoma has a unique sentencing range determined by the legislature.
Criminal justice reform advocates say implementing a statewide felony classification system could help standardize sentencing practices, eliminate antiquated laws and ultimately reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate.
In 2018 the legislature voted to create the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council, a group of 22 district attorneys, retired judges, legislators and corrections department officials tasked with analyzing the state’s criminal sentencing code and offering reform proposals.
In March the council released a draft of sentencing reform recommendations. FWD.US, a Washington, D.C.-based prison advocacy group, has criticized the proposal, saying it would actually increase the state’s prison population by 1,000 over the next decade if implemented.
Rader introduced Senate Bill 704, a measure similar to State Question 805 that would have prohibited courts from imposing sentence enhancements on defendants who have never been convicted of a violent felony, defined as any offense listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes. It passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee but stalled last session in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Prison Closure Decisions
Requested by: Sens. Casey Murdock, R-Felt and Roger Thompson, R-Okemah
This study will examine how the Department of Corrections decides which prisons to close.
Northwest Oklahoma lawmakers were caught off guard by the agency’s June 16 announcement that it would close the William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply by the end of 2021. The minimum-security men’s prison housed about 900 prisoners and employed 140 staff.
Prison officials admit the announcement was botched but have stood by their decision, saying it would cost more than $40 million to repair its leaking roof and antiquated heating and cooling system. Murdock questioned why the agency didn’t fix those maintenance problems sooner.
While the agency doesn’t need legislative or board approval to close a prison, Murdock and other lawmakers have argued they need to be more transparent when deciding whether or not to close a prison because their decisions impact rural economies. Many of Fort Supply’s 330 residents worked at the prison.
More prison closures could come as Oklahoma’s prison population continues to drop. There were 21,641 prisoners in state custody on July 26, down from 26,544 three years ago. Experts say a combination of justice reforms taking effect and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on district courts are contributing to the decline.
Oklahoma Court System Funding
Requested by: Eight Republican representatives
Lawmakers will examine the state legislature’s role in funding district courts.
Oklahoma’s 77 district courts rely heavily on fine and fee collections to fund basic operations. In 2014, 49% of the $152 million in fines collected by district courts was used on facility maintenance and to pay court employees. From 2007 to 2019, less than a quarter of district court funding came from state appropriations.
Boosting state funding to district courts could help alleviate the burden on justice-involved people, who are often arrested and thrown in jail for failing to pay a court fine, advocates say.
Requested by: Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond
Legislators involved in IS-2021-54 will evaluate Oklahoma’s criminal record expungement law and analyze reforms that other states have adopted to streamline the process.
Under current state law, most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions are eligible for expungement five years after the completion of a sentence if the defendant has not been charged with or convicted of a new crime. Expungement can make it easier for those with a criminal record to find housing and employment, but it’s typically a time-consuming and expensive process.
Lawmakers in Utah and Pennsylvania have enacted laws granting automatic record expungement to most misdemeanor defendants after a certain amount of time has passed. Researchers say these “clean slate” laws remove financial barriers to expungement and benefit people who are no longer a threat to public safety.
Remaining Criminal Justice Interim Studies
- “Incarceration Effects on Family,” requested by Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa
- “Community Corrections Addressing S.Q. 780,” requested by Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane
- “GPS monitoring in Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice Systems,” requested by Rep. Garry Mize, R-Guthrie
- “Oklahoma Ex-Offender Reentry Programs,” requested by Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City
- “The manner and method by which District Attorneys conduct internal investigations,” requested by Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City
- “An Interim Study on non-violent criminal behavior “punishment” alternatives to incarceration,” requested by Reps. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa and Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa
- “Whether mental health diagnoses are being considered during sentencing hearings,” Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan
- “Study whether jury or non-jury trials are most effective in determining the outcome of child welfare cases,” Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan
- “Nursing accommodations for incarcerated mothers,” Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City
- “Law enforcement use of force and de-escalation techniques,” Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa
- “Housing and jobs for formerly incarcerated or justice involved,” Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa
- “Mental health and substance abuse best practices to reduce suicide and incarceration levels,” Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa
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