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Records show state's trouble in retaining corrections officers

Jan 13, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

This week, the board approved a new policy that aims to make each prison’s population count more accurate, meaning some of the facilities are now technically at 116 percent of their inmate capacity. Among the more than 250 employee disciplinary records reviewed by the World, there are isolated, serious incidents of officers using inappropriate violence on offenders or having illegal or inappropriate relationships. Many of those resulted in immediate discharge. Staffing levels remain between 60 percent and 67 percent, officials said. Board member Linda Neal noted the stark contrast: “I want everybody to really let those figures soak in. It’s a formula for disaster.”

By CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, January 12, 2015 12:00 am

The training video features Oklahoma correctional officers of different experience levels and salaries, talking about the realities of working in shifts and strip-searching prison inmates.

“The job of correctional officer is an important role, it’s a rewarding career with many opportunities for advancement,” a narrator says in the video, filmed about 13 years ago to screen for potential hires at the Department of Corrections.

One security officer featured, Sgt. Charles Galaviz, says he plans on being at DOC for 20 years, after about three years on the job.

Records reviewed by the Tulsa World show officers such as Galaviz, now in year 16 of his career, could become an increasing rarity for the department. Out of more than 250 disciplinary records from the past two years, about 20 percent of employees — or two in 10 — were fired because they simply stopped showing up for work.

And those numbers don’t include DOC officers who quit their jobs by giving notice.

For an agency facing prisons over 100 percent capacity with only about 65 percent of the staffing level necessary to run them, workplace frustration appears to be at an all-time high.

“The pressure for everyone to manage things is so great,” said Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a statewide association of prison, probation and parole employees. “People at the bottom are just getting brutalized. It starts at the top.”

Wallace issued a report last week he titled: “The Abysmal Oklahoma DOC 2014 Year-in-Review.”

Among key points in Wallace’s report were several sad reminders of difficulties Oklahoma’s prison workers face: In March, a female records officer was taken hostage at knifepoint by an inmate; a possibly sleep-deprived officer died in a car crash; at least 20 officers logged more than 1,100 hours of overtime.

In July, when about 65 percent of the agency’s employees became eligible for the first pay raise handed out in eight years, DOC still lost employees, Wallace noted.

Records show from July to October 2014, the agency lost nearly 50 full-time correctional officers.

Over the two-year period of discipline records reviewed by the World, DOC records show the agency steadily lost correctional officers nearly every month since January 2013. During that same time frame, the state’s prison population gained nearly 3,000 offenders.

“Retention doesn’t seem important to DOC,” Wallace said.

Employees have told him they have been threatened with disciplinary actions for calling in sick, he said.

Wallace said he knew of one employee who quit while only a year away from full retirement benefits, another was a young recruit who won an award for top marks at her academy.

“They’re treating the current employees so badly,” he said. “People are telling me that the disciplinary actions right now are through the roof.”

Among the more than 250 employee disciplinary records reviewed by the World, there are isolated, serious incidents of officers using inappropriate violence on offenders or having illegal or inappropriate relationships. Many of those resulted in immediate discharge.

In April 2014, a security officer was fired after an offender disclosed a sexual relationship with him that occurred while she was on GPS ankle-monitor release from prison. Another officer was fired in 2013 after admitting to an internal affairs officer that she’d had sexual intercourse “for one to two minutes” with an offender on supervision for a suspended prison sentence.

But many of the discipline records deal with smaller policy violations that lead to temporary suspensions without pay — engaging in social media with a parolee, allowing subordinates to get advice/adjustments from a prisoner who was a chiropractor prior to incarceration, allowing a family member to get a haircut from a prison barber, and bringing a dog to work.

One officer was suspended for five days for denying to his superiors at Dick Conner Correctional Center that he asked an offender to “deliver a pair of socks” to a member of the officer’s family, who was also an inmate at the prison.

Some of the records reflect frustration with managers regarding overtime and being held over for additional shifts when others failed to show up to work.

In February 2014, an officer at Oklahoma State Reformatory was fired after not showing up for work for more than a month, following an incident where he mouthed off to his supervisor about being scheduled to work weekends.

“You stated that you would flip burgers for minimum wage and have weekends off, and that you were looking for a job and had one before you got this so it’s no big deal,” the report states.

An increase in staffing would create a better environment for the officers, Director Robert Patton told reporters at a Board of Corrections meeting Thursday. But the state is not currently funding the agency to staff prisons at 100 percent levels.

Patton declined to be interviewed regarding the specific discipline records. But he emailed a statement to the World in response to a question about the agency’s difficulty retaining employees: “Prisons are tough environments to work in and some people decide it is not something they want to do. It is not unique to Oklahoma. We have established regional training locations for correctional officer training so they can stay in their home areas; we are asking for additional funding for pay raises and additional staff and we are trying to better control overtime so they can spend time with family.”

This week, the board approved a new policy that aims to make each prison’s population count more accurate, meaning some of the facilities are now technically at 116 percent of their inmate capacity. Staffing levels remain between 60 percent and 67 percent, officials said.

Board member Linda Neal noted the stark contrast: “I want everybody to really let those figures soak in. It’s a formula for disaster.”

Board chairman Kevin Gross said the agency not being able to give raises to officers for the past seven years likely hurt employee retention.

“Part of the turnover is, we were not being able to stay up with the market,” he said.

In some rural areas, Oklahoma’s prisons are competing with better-paying oil field jobs for workers, Gross said. Spokesman Jerry Massie said it’s not unusual in the agency’s history to lose employees in their first few months or years on the job.

“There are some people that just don’t like working in a prison,” he said. “It’s almost like a mission.”

Employees who are motivated by that sense of purpose tend to stay, he said.

The DOC recruitment video was originally designed to give prospective hires a realistic view of the job, Massie said.

On the video, they talk about the realities of workplace violence, use of force and what to do when catching inmates engaged in sexual acts: “You don’t have to stare,” one officer advises.

The agency stopped using that video a few months ago, Massie said, because it now has a streamlined online application process.

That application includes a “willingness evaluation,” regarding specific duties, such as working overtime and weekends. Prospective hires have to check boxes yes or no on those questions, and if they say no to certain duties, they simply won’t be hired, Massie said.

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