Editorial: Fallin Attorney ‘Is off base’

Tulsa World

The governor’s general counsel is off base in his claims this week that low pay, understaffing and mandatory overtime at Oklahoma prisons are not creating safety issues.

When prisons are at 60 percent of their authorized staffing levels and the prison population has risen to more than 25,000 inmates, there are safety issues or the likelihood of them occurring.

General counsel Steve Mullins’ comments follow a report released last week by Oklahoma Prison Professionals indicating state correctional officers’ pay and staffing levels are among the worst in the nation, with starting pay nearly $4 an hour below the national average.

Mullins claims that Department of Corrections staffing levels “are similar to the staffing ratios used by almost all other prisons in the country.”

Somebody is not leveling with the public. Correctional officers, along with most state workers, have gone without a raise for nearly eight years and staffing ratios have been down for years with the prison workers seeking higher-paying jobs in far less dangerous environments. The shortage is so significant that several facilities require officers to work 12-hour shifts. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners has risen by 11 percent.

Mullins’ response: The high turnover rate is a management problem.

The Legislature gave the DOC a standstill budget this year. DOC officials claim that they will need $31.5 million just to keep up with rising inmate numbers. But with declining revenues it’s unlikely DOC will see relief.

Meanwhile, the governor and legislative leadership appear to favor moving more inmates from state-run facilities to private prisons, which handle their own staffing levels. To operate profitably, those facilities must remain full. Oklahoma has two private prison facilities sitting empty after other states removed their inmates in cost-cutting moves. Oklahoma already uses for-profit facilities to house several thousand inmates.

Forty years ago, Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester was the scene of one of the most destructive prison riots in U.S. history. A federal lawsuit to reduce overcrowding, among other issues, led to a federal judge overseeing prisons for years until deficiencies were corrected.

Mullins’ comments do not jibe with the Oklahoma Prison Professionals report nor do they reflect other evidence clearly showing state prisons are understaffed, with workers pulling long shifts in hostile environments. As far back as 2008, an $844,000 outside audit requested by Republican leadership cited understaffing as a significant issue in Oklahoma prisons. And nothing has changed.

Mullins’ comments do not comport with reality and do not bode well for safety inside prisons or for the public’s safety outside them. His comments instead remind of us of the old cartoon of a sign posted by an office water cooler: “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”

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