Severe staffing shortages and operational inefficiencies within Oklahoma’s prison system are placing a legal and financial burden on the state, examiners from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency wrote in a draft report released on Thursday.
The 59-page operational assessment notes that several state prisons are regularly staffed below 50% of the recommended level. The agency has taken some steps to thwart the risk of violence in particularly understaffed facilities, including housing elderly prisoners together. But the examiners found a strong negative correlation between violent incidents and the number of correctional officers on duty.
“There appears to be a critical point where the number of (correction officers) is too low to manage the inmate population, which could result in a rise in violence,” the report reads.
In April, the corrections department announced it would implement a 30% pay raise for correctional officers, increasing the entry-level wage from $15.74 to $20.46 an hour. Beyond increasing wages and bolstering recruitment efforts, the agency has not developed a comprehensive strategy to address understaffing, the report notes.
Examiners discovered widespread cost disparities between comparable state prisons. While all state prison facilities use a master menu, annual per-prisoner food costs ranged from $900 at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy to $1,425 at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown.
“The administration of DOC revealed they do not examine cost differences between facilities, making it unlikely that cost-saving practices will be replicated,” the report reads. Examiners identified $56.6 million in unfound operation savings in the agency’s budget.
The Oversight Committee for the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency is scheduled to discuss the report at 3 p.m. this afternoon. The report will be finalized with suggestions from committee members.
Here are other key takeaways from the report:
Budget Process Critiqued
The report recommends that the corrections department use a prison population projection as the basis for their budget requests. While the state prison population has declined 17% over the past five years, the agency’s budget has increased by 12%.
“Even after adjusting for inflation, DOC should have realized savings from a decreased inmate population,” the report reads.
Agency officials told examiners that they have not conducted prisoner population forecasts in recent years, citing the uncertain effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling and criminal justice reforms like State Question 780.
The report notes that the agency’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget included $26.6 million for 754 vacant positions.
“Repurposing these funds to higher critical staff or facility investment may be of better use to the correctional system,” examiners wrote.
William S. Key Closure Analyzed
The Department of Corrections’ decision last summer to vacate the William S. Key Correctional Facility in Fort Supply drew sharp criticism from northwest Oklahoma lawmakers, who called the closure short-sighted and harmful to the local economy.
Examiners wrote that a “strong case” could be made to close the facility based on estimated repair costs. They also noted the prison was the third-most efficiently run minimum-security facility in the state.
The report proposes that lawmakers and the Department of Corrections work together to create a prison closure decision matrix. The chart would allow officials to weigh a facility’s infrastructure needs, proximity to other prisons and local economic impact before deciding to vacate or repurpose a facility.
Offender Management System Outdated
The agency’s current offender management system is obsolete and could cause prisoners to be released on the incorrect date, examiners wrote.
Prison staff currently rely on manual sentencing calculations to determine when a prisoner should be released from custody. The corrections department reported an estimated error rate of 1 to 1.5%.
The agency is updating its offender management system to be fully electronic, a years-long undertaking that is expected to be fully implemented by 2025. Examiners wrote that successful implementation of the electronic system is “critical to public safety” and the efficiency of the agency’s operations.
Oklahoma continues to face a severe shortage of corrections officers, a problem that’s costing the state millions in overtime pay and could put those who live and work in state prisons at risk.
State Prison Population Decline Expected
Using state arrest and prison admission data, examiners conducted an independent prison population forecast. They project the state’s prison population could decline by as much as 17% over the next five years. The calculation does not include prisoners housed in private facilities.
What Policy Recommendations Does LOFT Make?
Proposed legislative reforms include:
- Requiring DOC to include a one-year prison population projection with their annual budget request;
- Requiring DOC to annually report per-facility staffing data;
- Expanding the authority of the Board of Corrections to have direct oversight and accountability over the Department of Corrections;
- Requiring DOC to quantity the “funded but vacant” positions and hold those funds in reserve until the position is filled;
- Requiring the Legislature and Department of Corrections to establish a criteria matrix to be used when deciding whether to close or consolidate prison facilities.
Proposed agency-level changes include:
- Producing a publicly available quarterly report on the status of the correctional system’s operational capacity and total system operational cost;
- Developing a master facility plan that incorporates facility design options to maximize DOC’s workforce;
- Formally establishing data sharing with other criminal justice entities, including the courts and law enforcement;
- Modifying budgeting practices to specify the individual facilities receiving program funding or operational funds;
- Creating a systemwide incentive plan for prisoners to move from less desirable facilities to those with enhanced workforce training, education and rehabilitation programs.
How Did DOC Respond?
In a May 31 letter to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, the agency said it “supports the recommendations and recognizes room for improvement.”
The corrections department questioned the examiner’s formula for projecting future prison populations and held that the assessment should include private prisons.
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