OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite receiving the sixth highest state appropriation budget, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections continues to have poorly designed facilities that create inefficiencies and safety issues, is unable to recruit and retain staff and does not have a transparent budget process, the Legislative Office for Fiscal Transparency wrote in a report released Thursday.
The probe found that the state’s prison system faces “considerable challenges,” but the “most urgent and persistent challenge” is low staffing levels. LOFT wrote that DOC is not using data to strategically tackle its staffing shortages or address inefficient or underutilized facilities. They said prisons are routinely staffed 50% below what’s needed, and wardens, not department-wide leadership, are deciding which level of inmates their prisons will house.
The analysis also found that DOC has an “overall lack of strategic planning” and is reporting increased agency costs even as the state’s prison population is declining. For the past seven years, the agency has incorrectly forecasted its offender population, predicting 20% more inmates than in actuality, LOFT said.
When DOC recently enacted across-the-board pay raises for all employees, LOFT contended that DOC could have saved $26 million by targeting more generous raises to “areas most needed.”
Operating with a $603.7 million budget, DOC is responsible for running 22 correctional institutions and caring for the 16,000 offenders living inside them. The state has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the country with 420 prisoners per 100,000. There are also 22,477 offenders currently under community supervision, according to LOFT’s analysis.
In response to the findings, Scott Crow told lawmakers that during his tenure as DOC director he’s been able to maintain a flat budget and utilized nearly $42 million of the savings to provide employee raises. The expenditure boosted the starting salary for correctional officers from $15.74 an hour to about $20.40, he said. He said it was critical to increase compensation for all staff because it takes everyone to keep prisons running.
He also said DOC has used savings from housing fewer inmates to increase the quality of its vehicle fleet and to add GPS. They’ve also been grappling with years of expensive deferred maintenance issues.
“I don’t disagree with the number of inmates that have declined over the years, but we’ve actually been able to take the savings and invest into other things in the department to improve on working conditions for our staff, the living conditions for our inmates, to improve on our ability for transportation and also to increase compensation to be competitive with the private sector and others in the law enforcement communities,” Crow said.
To compensate for decreasing inmate numbers, Crow said DOC has closed three prisons in the past year — in Fort Supply, in Oklahoma City and a private prison.
He also said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to predict incarceration numbers. Incarceration decreased during the pandemic, but the prison system has begun seeing increased inmate numbers again as the judicial system works through two years of backlogged cases.
LOFT recommended that DOC create a behavioral incentive program for inmates to move to more favorable facilities and that those prisons provide workforce training options and education and rehabilitation programs. They also suggested that the prison system review all facilities to determine which should be upgraded using realistic staffing levels. That will allow DOC to determine which facilities operate most efficiently and move inmates to those locations.
“I think the report is a great place to begin to look at how to do a better job and what is wrong with corrections, and how we can improve our correctional facilities. So, I think it’s a good beginning,” said state Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, who worked for years in corrections.
Humphrey said he agreed overall with LOFT’s findings, but disagreed with their assertion that the latest raise should have been targeted to certain employees. He agreed with DOC’s decision to better compensate everyone “in the trenches.”
However, he said it’s clear that DOC is spending too much on upper management, and said there needs to be a better ratio between administrators and actual workers. Any nonessential administrative employees should be placed into essential roles and have their pay cut, he said.
“I do think they’re grossly overweight in management, and I think that’s a big part of what the problems are,” Humphrey said. “They have too many managers, and the managers often aren’t good managers. If I was going to start (reforming) corrections that is where I would start.”
Humphrey, who chairs the House’s corrections committee, also said he doesn’t agree that prisons need to be consolidated or closed, but believes DOC needs to repurpose some. He said some should be turned into workforce training centers while others should be repurposed into mental health prisons that focus on getting the incarcerated the treatment they need.
Bobby Cleveland, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said he thought LOFT did a pretty good job of evaluating DOC’s weaknesses. His group represents correctional employees.
“Everything in there I’ve seen so far and heard and read is pretty much spot on,” Cleveland said.
He said DOC continues to struggle to recruit and retain correctional employees because they’re not treating their existing employees well or with respect. He said the agency remains hundreds of officers short, despite the recent increases in pay.
Cleveland said current employees are forced to work 16-hour days more than three days a week.
“They have to do it because they’re so shorthanded, and they’re so shorthanded because they’ve been so mismanaged,” Cleveland said.
He said officers don’t get breaks. They get disciplined when they refuse to come into work on their days off, and are sent home without pay when they make mistakes after working 16-hour days. Cleveland even alleged the agency has forced some employees to wait a month to receive pay as a form of punishment.
He said that DOC needs to change its culture or they’ll never fix any staffing issues.
But Cleveland also praised Crow, and said Crow has taken a direct interest in improving morale for non-management employees. He said that intervention has begun to improve the overall culture at DOC.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.