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Julie DelCour: DOC's towering problems

Aug 24, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

Julie DelCour: DOC’s towering problems

 

By JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor | Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2014 12:00 am

LARC

The tower at the Oklahoma Department of Correction’s Lexington Assessment and Reception Center is one of those being considered for decomissioning by the state prison system.

In the newest re-configuring of deck chairs on the Titanic, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is considering unmanning guard towers at six state prisons, including the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

The proposed closing of the towers, as reported by Graham Lee Brewer of The Oklahoman last week, is outlined in an internal DOC staffing evaluation memo. Creating greater efficiencies and cost-cutting have become the bywords for a struggling system with old-woman-in-the-shoe syndrome. DOC Director Robert Patton has so many inmates he doesn’t know what to do – 27,000, and counting.

So, Patton does the best he can, which is to critically evaluate anything and everything he could eliminate, including towers still operational at OSP, Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown, Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, Joseph Harp Correctional Center also in Lexington, and the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy.

Shuttering towers creates controversy. The close-them-now crowd claims that towers are a relic.

Rifle-toting correctional officers perched in towers haven’t, fortunately, been called upon to pick off any inmates going over the wall in at least 40 years.

The keep-them-open faction,including members of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, argues that the towers are a deterrent and an added layer of security. Towers and the guards in them help keep inmates in, protect prisoners inside the yard from other inmates and make prison staff and communities feel safer.

Tony Scarborough, the mayor of Granite, told Brewer that the towers are “absolutely necessary.”

The towers also can be a useful tool for correctional officers trying to spot contraband care packages — drugs, cigarettes, cell phones, etc. — often lobbed over prison walls.

Iconic

And, then there are the sentimentalists, believing prisons are supposed to have towers because they’re iconic. Have you ever seen a prison-break movie without a tower? You soon might. Sophisticated technology, motion detectors, surveillance cameras, and staff patrolling the prison perimeter have replaced towers in most new prisons.

Closing the towers, if that occurs, reflects just how critical and chronic staffing shortages have become at all DOC correctional facilities.

Patton simply cannot afford to be too much of a sentimentalist on towers or anything else of questionable value. He faces enormous challenges: DOC funding lags. Space is a huge issue. Lack of programming for inmates persists. DOC staffing levels are 40 percent below where they should be, meaning Patton really does not have enough manpower to adequately supervise inmates.

In fact, DOC isn’t quite sure exactly how many inmates it actually has, and where they are. An audit released in July revealed that an offender monitoring system somehow lost count. It’s safe to assume, however, that the prison system isn’t under capacity.

Any efficiencies Patton implements will only go so far. What he needs is more staff. Employees are spread too thin, poorly paid, overworked and outnumbered. They put their lives on the line, working in challenging conditions, to say the least.

All this is no secret to the Legislature, which chooses to ignore bad news if it costs money. Correctional officers went seven years without a raise. Lawmakers have been warned that the staffing levels are too low. They’ve been warned that the situation is dangerous for workers, inmates and, potentially, for the public.

All these problems tower over everything else.