Oklahoma CURE

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Tulsa World Editorial: How bad is state prison employee morale? Check out how many workers just quit

Jan 16, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Help wanted: Corrections officers to work in remote locations; low wages, long hours, dangerous conditions. Low morale provided. Apply to state Department of Corrections. And officials wonder why they can’t hire and retain qualified and reliable staff to supervise 27,000 inmates in facilities that are over 100 percent capacity.

Help wanted: Corrections officers to work in remote locations; low wages, long hours, dangerous conditions. Low morale provided. Apply to state Department of Corrections.

And officials wonder why they can’t hire and retain qualified and reliable staff to supervise 27,000 inmates in facilities that are over 100 percent capacity.

How bad is morale among state prison workers? A Tulsa World review of 250 disciplinary records of DOC employees during the past two years, shows that two in 10 were fired because they just stopped showing up for work. Those figures don’t reflect the number who gave notice to take another job.

The inmate-to-staff ratio is nearly the highest in the nation. DOC has only 65 percent of the personnel needed to staff prisons adequately. The situation isn’t new but it certainly is dangerous — to prisoners, employees and the public.

All the wrong numbers are in place: Underpaid corrections officers are being forced to work double shifts and extended hours. With programs cut by budget reductions, bored inmates have time on their hands. Assaults among the prison population and on staff, escapes and unrest are common.

The answer is not to shift inmates to private facilities, which must keep a certain number of inmates to make a profit. That’s poor public policy and ultimately holds the taxpayer hostage to contract demands.

The state has to take care of its own inmates and take a rational look at how many inmates it locks up. Others states have successfully adopted smart-on-crime sentencing policies that have led to decreased prison spending without jeopardizing public safety.

Oklahoma has the same chance to reduce prison costs if it fully funds the Justice Reinvestment Initiative adopted in 2011 but left to languish in subsequent years.

Prison staff deserve fair wages. The public deserves to be safe. Other states have proven it can be done. Oklahoma lawmakers need to figure out how we can too.