The Oklahoma Department of Corrections plans to provide a $2,500 sign-on bonus to newly hired prison officers and temporarily boost pay for employees working in especially understaffed facilities. 

The agency’s staffing levels have dropped significantly over the past year, resulting in officers working excessive overtime and decreased employee morale,  corrections director Scott Crow told the state Board of Corrections on Wednesday afternoon. 

Oklahoma had 387 fully-funded, vacant correctional officer positions in June, according to budget documents presented Wednesday.

All new officer recruits will be eligible for the sign-on bonus, which they’ll have to pay back if they leave state government within 12 months, Crow said. Officers working at prisons designated as critically understaffed will receive a temporary $1.50 per hour pay raise until the issue is resolved for three consecutive months. Crow said the agency is in the “final stages” of implementing the incentives. 

The agency plans to pay for the bonuses and temporary raises using funds appropriated in House Bill 2908, approved by the legislature. The line-item budget item directs the Department of Corrections to spend $8 million to recruit, hire and retain more prison officers. 

“There is no doubt a shortage of correctional officers and other staff across our facilities,” Crow told Board members. “This is one step towards correcting those deficiencies.” 

Oklahoma Watch published an article in June examining the state’s struggle to keep prisons adequately staffed. Three former correctional officers quoted in the story said they found their job fulfilling, but ultimately resigned because they couldn’t handle excessive overtime hours or had issues with management. 

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, said the incentives should be a positive step towards boosting prison staffing statewide. He estimates the state has been losing an average of 100 correctional officers per month. 

“People got to understand how dangerous it is and how we need to hire more of these guys,” Cleveland said. 

The Department of Corrections does not regularly report its staffing levels. In June the agency said it would conduct a staffing analysis and present the results to the legislature in 2022. 

Entry-level state 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. 

Prison understaffing has emerged as a national issue. Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer positions were vacant as of May, prompting some facilities to use nurses and teachers to look after prisoners. A “mass exodus” of prison workers in Nebraska is creating dangerous conditions, the state’s prison inspector general warned earlier this month. 

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

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