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Oklahoma DOC Trying To Manage Overcrowded, Understaffed Prison

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LEXINGTON, Oklahoma -

Oklahoma's prison population is almost 28,000 and it continues to grow.

State leaders are trying to reverse that trend, but in the meantime, the Corrections Department faces a major challenge: Managing prisons that are overcrowded and understaffed.

At a recent budget hearing, Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Robert Patton told lawmakers state prisons were 116 percent of capacity. Perhaps worse, he told them, the state would have to hire 857 correctional officers in order to fully staff its prisons.

"Due to overcrowding," said Romon Jones, "it's kind of caused us some security issues."

Jones is Chief of Security at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, a medium-minimum security prison, and one of the 17 prisons operated by DOC. He says big picture of Oklahoma Corrections is bad, but there's more to it.

"We're the little picture, we're here every day, 12 to 13 hours a day working," said Jones, "five days a week."

5/11/2015 Related Story: Overcrowded Prisons: Oklahoma's Criminal Crisis

Starting about a year and a half ago, Jones says, because of the staffing shortage, correctional officers have had to work five 12-hour shifts a week. And even with that, he says, there's frequently just one officer covering a 200-inmate unit.

"And it just makes it where it's real difficult to manage the offenders," said warden Jim Farris.

Farris says Lexington is running at about 112 percent of capacity, which has forced them to get creative with their space.

"As far as this unit here," said Farris, referring to the facility's minimum security unit, "these are actually our day runs."

Farris says the day runs would normally contain tables and places where the offenders can do different things. Instead, the day runs are filled with metallic bunk beds.

"It makes it just a little bit more stressful on offenders," said Farris. "When you get more people and you compact them into a small area, naturally the tension rises."

Prison officials say the immediate need, even if they can start reducing the inmate population, is funding. They say they need to be able to hire more officers and also upgrade their technology.

"We're in the world of a flip phone," said Jones, "that's where our technology is right now for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. We got to get better...If we don't, something's gonna fail."

Legislative leaders are attempting to finalize the budget for next fiscal year this week. Most agencies, including DOC, are expected to see funding reduced.

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