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State: Oklahoma prison staff shortages aren't causing escapes

Jun 10, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

– Along with the massive manhunt in the Northeast, Oklahoma authorities are looking for an escaped prisoner who’s considered armed and dangerous. Robert Thomas is just the latest in a string of escapees this year. It’s not just the escapes. The state department of corrections is also dealing with severe staff shortages, but officials claim they don’t believe the problems are connected. 2015 began with six escapes in less than a month from the John H. Lilley Correctional Center in Okfuskee County. The inmates were caught not long afterwards.

TULSA – Along with the massive manhunt in the Northeast, Oklahoma authorities are looking for an escaped prisoner who's considered armed and dangerous. Robert Thomas is just the latest in a string of escapees this year.

It's not just the escapes. The state department of corrections is also dealing with severe staff shortages, but officials claim they don't believe the problems are connected.

2015 began with six escapes in less than a month from the John H. Lilley Correctional Center in Okfuskee County. The inmates were caught not long afterwards.

Robert Thomas escaped from a minimum security facility in McAlester, Oklahoma this week when he walked down a dirt road, according to facility staff. He was serving time for convictions including animal cruelty, theft, drugs and other offenses.

Unlike the New York escapes- many of the escapees in Oklahoma seem to just walk away.

"Understand, the minimum-security facility does not have fences. He was seen running away from the facility on a dirt road where there was a white four-door pick up apparently waiting for him," said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Watkins said the state expects to increase the prisoner population by at least 1,200 this year. However, guards and staff are stretched thin.

"We are currently averaging between 60 and 67 percent staffing," she said.

Watkins maintains staffing problems are not a contributing factor for escapes. Instead current personnel are filling gaps with overtime. Many working 12 hour shifts, Watkins said.

The state budget increases the department's funding by $14 million, which it will use for more staff, along with beds for prisoners, health care, utility costs hikes and facility repairs.

Even though Watkins denies the long shifts contribute to escapes, she admits the long hours wear on staff.

"It is difficult work. We would prefer to have them on an eight hour shift," Watkins said.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections lists several other escapees still unaccounted for. You can view the agency's list here.