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State works to address corrections shortage

Sep 26, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

“First and foremost, those offenders in there are not bad, per se,” Furr said. “They can get rehab and all that stuff, and I look forward to maybe watching them walk out of the prison rehabbed.”

By Parker Perry | Staff writer | Posted Yesterday

 

Anthony Furr wants to use his time working for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to help people.

“First and foremost, those offenders in there are not bad, per se,”  Furr said. “They can get rehab and all that stuff, and I look forward to maybe watching them walk out of the prison rehabbed.”

 

Furr was one of 18 cadets who graduated recently from the Correctional Career Development Center in McAlester — a five-week program that trains people for work in Oklahoma’s prison system. The graduates are entering the prison system at a time when many in the state are increasingly calling for higher pay for corrections officers and employees, along with more adequate staffing levels at the state’s prisons.

 

Sean Wallace, the executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals — the union that represents corrections officers — said Oklahoma prisons are staffed at 67 percent, meaning workers are often forced to work double shifts.

 

“Employees are forced to work 20 hours overtime a week at almost every facility,” Wallace said. “Because we have so few staff, we can’t work eight-hour shifts. People are working double shifts all the time, 16 hours a day.

 

“ The (DOC) moved to 12-hour shifts a day, so some employees are working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some day, hopefully, (correctional officers) will only have to work four 12-hour shifts, but now they are working five days a week.”

The type of class the officers graduated from in McAlester is part of the state’s efforts to begin addressing staffing shortages. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said new DOC Director Robert Patton is diligently working to increase staffing. One of the ways he is doing so is by starting the regional cadet academies like the one the recent correctional officers graduated from in McAlester.

 

“(Academies) used to be done in just one location at certain times of the year,” Watkins said. “But what Director Patton has done is spread them out. 

 

“The idea is to bring in the new hires and train them effectively and efficiently and get them into the work force.” 

 

Watkins said the ultimate goal is to be fully staffed. She said the term “fully staffed” will be defined by a staffing analysis that is on-going.

 

“We are going to prisons and talking to correctional officers, wardens and others and asking what is needed,” Watkins said.

 

She also said not everyone is working double shifts and the hope is to stop those who are.

 

“We feel for security reasons we don’t want someone working a 12 or 16 hour shift,” Watkins said. 

 

Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, said the governor recognizes the struggles of corrections officers. The governor, he said, advocated for a pay raise this past legislative period. Wallace said the 8 percent pay raise upped the salary average to $29,000.

 

“We have been hearing for a long time that salaries need to be more competitive, and we agreed,”  Weintz said.  “We were happy to push that legislation.”

 

But Wallace said there is currently a lot of unrest amongst state corrections officers because of low staffing and pay.

 

“They have to work double shifts almost every day and they hate it,” Wallace said. “They have gone through that for years. “These are dangerous places to work, and supervisors are bullying people to stay and work. There is a terrible environment in the prisons, and that is because of a lack of staff.”

 

Wallace said the pay raise was marginal and has not helped recruiting and has instead created a divide between employees inside prison walls. He said corrections officers got a raise but support staff didn’t.

 

“So far it has not made a bit of difference,” Wallace said. “Since July, more people have quit than have started.” Weintz said Fallin appreciates the work correctional officers do for the state.“Having an appropriate staffing level and making sure our prisons are safe for both guards and inmates is absolutely a priority,” Weintz said. “The governor has great respect for our corrections officials and the great work that they do and will continue to try to help them.”

 

Watkins said she has not seen evidence that the raise has had a negative effect. She did say that salary is still an issue when recruiting potential candidates.

 

“It’s always difficult to find people who want to be a corrections officer,” Watkins said. “The reason for this is salary, location, and the need to hire the brightest and best for these positions.“We are trying to get everyone who can get a pay raise a pay raise,” she said.

 

Weintz said the state appreciates the work correctional officers do.

 

“Having an appropriate staffing level and making sure our prisons are safe for both guards and inmates is absolutely a priority,” Weintz said. “The governor has great respect for our corrections officials and the great work that they do and will continue to try to help them.”

 

Contact Parker Perry at pperry@mcalesternews.com.

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