Is Alabama a cautionary tale for Oklahoma?
A state House committee recently approved a bill to pay Oklahoma correctional officers an extra $2 per hour. The raises are needed and the bill’s passage is encouraging, but lawmakers must keep the big picture in mind regarding the Department of Corrections.
That picture includes aging prisons housing far more inmates than they were designed to accommodate. While the inmate count has fallen in the past several months, it remains at about 27,000 (including those awaiting transfer from county jails).
Prisons are at about 112 percent of capacity, and have remained in that range for a long time. DOC Director Joe Allbaugh has said that truly addressing all the system’s needs would require more than $1.5 billion from the Legislature, with 60 percent of that going toward new prisons to add 5,200 beds to the system.
Allbaugh points to Alabama as an example of what might happen here. Following an investigation into that state’s prisons, the Justice Department recently informed Alabama officials that it believes inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights were being violated. It cited prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, violations “exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision and overcrowding.”
Former state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, now the head of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, says the ratio of inmates to correctional officers here is 87-to-1. Mandatory overtime is routine among COs — and so is turnover. Corrections officials say roughly 70 percent of Oklahoma’s COs have been on board five years or less.
Rep. J.J. Humphrey, R-Lane, House author of the $2 pay raise bill, wrote recently in The Oklahoman that the DOC “has a shortage in staff of between 45 and 50 percent, and the problem seems to be becoming worse.” If approved, the raises should help to some degree.
Yet more assistance is needed. In Alabama, the threat of a federal lawsuit prompted its legislature to approve a budget that gives correctional officers a raise and provides funding for 500 additional COs. That state’s governor also has proposed building or leasing three prisons.
Oklahoma lawmakers wisely approved a $116.5 million bond issue last year for prison maintenance and repair. They also approved an appropriation of $517 million for the current fiscal year, which was an increase over the prior year.
A lingering concern, however, is that the state’s prison population is projected to continue growing in the next several years. Recent reforms should slow the rate of growth, but by the end of this decade there could be about 4,000 more people in prison than there are today.
That may help explain why Allbaugh, in an email citing the Alabama developments, said, “This is headed our way …” The Legislature should heed that warning and look for ways, in addition to pay raises, to help the DOC carry out its mission.