Kenneth Manning applied to work as a state correctional officer on his 20th birthday.
Manning was accepted into the Oklahoma Department of Corrections training academy in March 2018. He started pulling 12-hour shifts at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center six weeks later.
Some prisoners try to take advantage of officers they perceive as weak, Manning said, particularly those who look young. He said he tried to stand his ground while maintaining a professional demeanor.
“A lot of it has to do with maturity,” said Manning, who left the Department of Corrections in April 2020. “You do have inmates from time to time that will try to bribe you with stuff.”
The maturity of correctional officer recruits as young as 18 could soon be put to the test.
The Department of Corrections is asking the legislature to lower its minimum hiring age from 20 to 18. The agency filed a similar legislative request in 2019, when no lawmaker agreed to sponsor the bill.
Unlike the 2019 proposal, this year’s request stipulates that 18 and 19-year-olds would work as detention officers with limited job responsibilities. The positions would require a high school diploma or equivalent and a clean background check.
It’s too early to tell whether the legislature will take up the proposal. The bill filing deadline is Jan. 20 and the regular session convenes on Feb. 7.
Lowering the minimum hiring age would allow the agency to introduce corrections as a viable career path to a broader demographic of young people, Department of Corrections spokesman Josh Ward said in a written statement. The corrections department competes with local law enforcement agencies and the oil industry to attract workers and has struggled for years to hire and retain staff.
“This year’s request provides ODOC a new classification for correctional officers to ensure placement at appropriate posts,” the statement reads. “This initiative also allows ODOC to bolster its recruiting efforts for correctional officers and offer earlier access to career-path opportunities.”
Asked whether the 18 and 19-year-old detention officers would be authorized to interact with or oversee prisoners, Ward said “posts will be assigned appropriately based on ability and experience.”
Where Teenagers Work in Corrections
Teenagers working in corrections is not unprecedented. While most states and the federal government set their minimum hiring age for correctional officers at 21, neighboring Texas, Kansas and New Mexico hire correctional officers as young as 18. In this state, 18 and 19-year-olds are eligible to work as detention officers at the Oklahoma and Tulsa county jails.
While other states have implemented a lower hiring age for prison employees, Manning believes most 18 and 19-year-olds aren’t prepared to do the sensitive and potentially dangerous work of a correctional officer. If the younger officers are restricted to tasks that don’t involve contact with prisoners, such as screening visitors, he doesn’t believe there will be many roles for them to fill.
“They may not be thinking about the long-term consequences of decisions you make,” said Manning, now 23 and employed as an apprentice electrician. “I just don’t feel like an 18 or 19-year-old is mature enough to handle everything that comes with that job.”
Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, said corrections officials informed him that the teenage detention officers would be restricted in their job duties and fill positions with minimal prisoner contact. He said he supports the proposal as long as more experienced officers are the ones overseeing housing units and recreation yards.
“We just need more people inside the prison, so I think it could be a good idea,” Cleveland said.
Two years ago, State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said a corrections department representative reached out and asked if he would run their bill lowering the agency’s minimum hiring age. Humphrey, a former probation officer and chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, rejected the idea as ludicrous.
“I told them not only would I not run it, but I would fight it 100%,” Humphrey said.
But as prison staffing numbers continue to decline, Humphrey said he’s opened up to the idea of teenagers working inside state prisons. He thinks the corrections department could garner support from the legislature if they emphasize that the teenage officers would not interact with prisoners convicted of violent offenses.
“It’s all in the details,” Humphrey said. “We need to see what kind of plan they’re going to present and where they’re planning on working them. If it’s not jobs where there’s going to be a high-level threat, I don’t have as much issue.”
Hiring, Retention Remain Challenging
The agency’s request to hire teenagers comes as hundreds of corrections officers are retiring or leaving the profession.
As of Oct. 31, the corrections department employed 1,288 correctional officers and had 471 fully-funded vacancies, state budget documents show. Ten months earlier on Dec. 31, 2020, corrections administrators reported employing 1,588 officers with 218 vacancies. The agency paid $5.7 million in overtime wages from July 1 through Oct. 31.
Oklahoma isn’t alone in its struggle to keep prisons adequately staffed. A handful of prisons in Georgia are reporting 70% correctional officer vacancy rates. Texas has closed six of its prisons over the past year due to understaffing.
Low starting pay, long hours and demanding working conditions make it difficult for state officials to hire and retain prison officers. The starting hourly wage for an Oklahoma corrections officer is $15.74 an hour, a rate many restaurants and retailers are competing with. Correctional officers are assaulted on the job more than any profession besides police officers and face an elevated risk of depression, suicide and PTSD.
Additionally, most of Oklahoma’s prison facilities are located in rural communities that have experienced population decline over the past decade. An Oklahoma Watch review of U.S. Census data found that nine out of 14 counties with a minimum, medium or maximum security prison lost population between 2010 and 2020.
Businesses nationwide, from construction companies to restaurants to retailers, have reported difficulties hiring employees over the past year. But the consequences of understaffing are greater in prisons, where a shortage of employees can increase the risk of violence for both staff and prisoners and result in substandard living conditions for the incarcerated.
The corrections department has boosted its recruiting efforts over the past six months, advertising benefits like full health and dental insurance and 15 days of paid off per year on its website and YouTube channel. On Sept. 30, corrections director Scott Crow announced the agency would provide a $2,500 sign-on bonus to new officer recruits who stay on the job for at least a year and temporarily raise hourly pay in understaffed facilities.
Cleveland said the sign-on bonus and temporary raises are positive developments, but low starting pay remains a deterrent to people considering a career in corrections. He said he plans to push legislation that would increase the starting wage for corrections officers to $20 an hour.
“It’s hard to get people to work at the salary they want to pay them,” Cleveland said. “We can hire 20 people and 30 leave.”
Manning thinks the corrections department could be successful in attracting 18 and 19-year-olds interested in jumpstarting a law enforcement career. But without an hourly pay increase, he said many of those recruits are likely to join the military or enroll in a police academy after a year or two.
“DOC’s issue is just keeping people,” said Manning. “You can hire all the people you want, but if you’re not keeping them you’re just setting yourself up for failure.”
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