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Oklahoma's prison homicide rate leads nation

Feb 16, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Oklahoma has the highest rate of prison homicides in the nation, with state inmates killed at a rate more than three times the national average, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.The figures reviewed by The Associated Press as part of a months-long investigation show 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons between 2001 and 2012, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates. The second highest rate is Maryland with 11 homicides per 100,000. The national average is 4 per 100,000.

By SEAN MURPHY Associated Press | Posted: Monday, February 16, 2015 12:36 pm

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma has the highest rate of prison homicides in the nation, with state inmates killed at a rate more than three times the national average, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The figures reviewed by The Associated Press as part of a months-long investigation show 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons between 2001 and 2012, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates. The second highest rate is Maryland with 11 homicides per 100,000. The national average is 4 per 100,000.

Oklahoma prison officials provided details on 38 killings inside Oklahoma prisons from 2005 to 2014, and a review of those cases show 10 of the inmate victims were convicted of sex crimes.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said each inmate goes through a screening process when they enter the system to determine if factors such as criminal history or gang affiliation could make them potential targets. She said each of the state's prisons has segregated housing for vulnerable inmates.

Watkins said she couldn't confirm Oklahoma's homicide rate compared to other states, but acknowledged that the number of killings is too high.

"There's absolutely no question it's a bad number, and it's absolutely an issue that we're looking at and one that no one wants to have, but it exists in the prison system," said Watkins. "We're doing everything in our power … but bad things happen when you're dealing with bad people."

Watkins declined to speculate on why Oklahoma's rate is so high, but those who work inside Oklahoma's prisons say the reason is simple: the facilities are overcrowded and understaffed. Statewide, prison activity rooms, classrooms and virtually all other spaces have been converted into housing areas. Prison guards are routinely required to work double-shifts, and a 2013 survey by an Oklahoma association that represents prison workers shows the state has the lowest guard-to-inmate staffing ratios in the country.

"We're way out of line, and it's only getting worse," said Sean Wallace, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. "Our officers feel that right now they're just trying to keep things from getting completely out of control. There's no way to be proactive and do their jobs anymore."

Randy Lopez, who worked for more than 20 years as a guard at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, said inmates know when staffing levels are low and are quick to take advantage. He said most of the killings inside the prison system are gang-related or stem from disagreements — causes that guards can sometimes detect if they have enough time to interact with offenders.

Oklahoma's prison system is currently staffed at 67 percent of the authorized level, and state prisons are operating at an average of 118 percent of capacity, according to DOC figures. The department has made increased funding for staff its top priority for the budget year that begins July 1, but the agency's request for an additional $14 million for pay raises and increased staffing will be difficult for legislators to approve with an estimated $600 million shortfall this year.

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