Persistent staffing problems in Oklahoma prisons threaten the safety of inmates and employees – an issue that needs to be addressed.
Legislators have increased funding to raise wages in recent years, but starting wages remain lower than most states bordering Oklahoma. As a result, overtime costs increased 46% over the past four years, from $ 13.13 million in 2017 to $ 19.19 million in 2020.
Oklahoma Watch reports that correctional staff in most Oklahoma prisons work 12-hour shifts five or six days a week due to job vacancies. The inability to fully occupy state prisons requires the occasional double shift that could keep a correctional worker on-site for up to 16 hours.
Former proofreaders interviewed by Oklahoma Watch said their jobs are rewarding – they are contributing to positive social change. They also liked the Oklahoma Department of Corrections package, and the opportunities to advance their careers were better than other jobs.
Her main complaint was staff shortages, which created tension between correctional officers, prison administrators and inmates. Excessive overtime and mounting frustrations strained family relationships and led to decisions to leave the job.
State lawmakers allocated more money this year to raise wages for correction workers. The increase follows a 2016 interim study in which former prison director Joe Allbaugh attributed a 40% annual turnover rate for correctional officers to long hours and low pay.
Wages are a good place to start, but reports of low work ethics indicate the need for cultural shifts to keep the best workers. Some former correctional staff felt they were being unjustifiably attacked or checked by overly critical senior officials angry with the culture.
DOC officials say there is no data showing a link between staff shortages and increased violence against prison staff. They cite bans as an available option when there is an increased risk of violence, but this is a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
The state has been putting bandages on at DOC for years if there are problems. It is time for a more holistic approach that addresses the financial and emotional wellbeing of the correction workers.
Oklahoma Watch reported that in 2019 only 1% of law enforcement officer positions in Pennsylvania were vacant. Pennsylvania pays its civil servants an average salary of $ 63,360, nearly $ 20,000 more than the national average, and provides psychological counseling services at its facilities.
While the state legislature is unlikely to spend the money required on these wages, they should do whatever it takes to support the mental and emotional well-being of the state’s correctional officers. That would be a good first step in changing the culture.
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