American Correctional Officer (ACO) issued a press release today blasting Gov. Fallin’s office’s statements about staffing in Oklahoma’s correctional centers. ACO is a national coalition of organizations whose members include publicly employed correctional officers and corrections professionals. They are dedicated to the advancement of the corrections profession and is operated for and by correctional officers working in our local, county, state, federal and juvenile correctional facilities.The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is a member and sits on the ACO Board of Directors.
Their Executive Director, Brian Dawe, has more than 24 years in the corrections field and is considered to be one of the nation’s leading experts on private prisons in the nation. He has spoken before the Canadian Parliament in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, at the Minnesota School of Law and at Yale University in Connecticut on the topic. Brian was the co-founder of the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union where he served on the statewide Executive Board for nine years. He held the positions of Grievance Coordinator, Executive Secretary and Vice President.
Stating that prison “…staffing is adequate for the safety of Oklahoma” is a dangerous lie. Oklahoma’s staffing of its prisons is the worst in the United States with a vacancy rate of more than 40 percent. This is in a state with one of the highest rates for incarcerating its citizens. Gov. Mary Fallin’s chief counsel Steve Mullins’ recent comments are truly bizarre and fly in the face of common sense. His assurances that the citizens of Oklahoma are safe ring hollow with the slightest investigation into the facts. Oklahoma’s inmate population has risen by 11 percent during the past few years while staffing levels have decreased. It is easy for a state official to say it is not dangerous to be short staffed. When their office is short staffed people are inconvenienced. People die in prisons. Our safety behind those walls and that of the public we serve is directly proportionate to our staffing levels, our training and years of experience.
With no increase in salary in over seven years, mandatory 12-hour shifts on a regular basis, the nation’s highest inmate to officer ratio and a prison population projected to continue to rise, the Fallin administration is rolling the dice with Oklahomans’ lives especially everyone working behind prison walls. This past December, Oklahoma reported an 11.7 inmate to officer staffing ratio, the worst in the nation, and that is still not accurate. The formula used simply divides the number of inmates by the total number of officers employed at the facility. Individual officers are not on duty around the clock, 365 days per year. Fortunately we get to go home once in a while. For example, a more recent staffing ratio at James Crabtree Correctional Center reports a dangerous staffing ratio of 18.7 inmates for every correctional officer. The current ratio at that facility is even worse. Yesterday afternoon there were 12 correctional officers on duty and 1,051 inmates, that’s an 87:1 inmate-to Officer ratio!
Other issues have surfaced that cause concern about the influence of private prison companies in Oklahoma. They have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence corrections policy in a state where they are failing to make money by having empty bed space. While the national trend has been to reduce the use of private prisons, it appears the Governor’s office is ignoring the implementation of policies that would reduce inmate populations so private prisons can fill their beds with offenders overflowing from already full state-run facilities. Since several of their facilities in other states have been closed due to poor performance and unrealized cost savings these companies must see a need to increase their business in Oklahoma.
Safety be damned – this is about politics. Mullins’ statement that correctional officer turnover is “a management problem”, demonstrates how out of touch the Governor and her staff are. This is certainly a public safety problem because we’re talking about incarcerating the most dangerous people in Oklahoma, not sweeping the streets. Staffing levels, staff experience and staff training are what keep a prison system safe and operational. The Governor’s administration has not supported those life lines for the men and women working in Oklahoma’s prison system, putting at risk not only the correctional officers who put their lives on the line every day but the citizens they are sworn to protect.