DOC Director Hopeful Reforms Will Curb Contraband Battles
OKLAHOMA CITY - The head of Oklahoma's prison system says what happened in a South Carolina prison last weekend could just as easily have happened in Oklahoma. Seven inmates were killed and more than a dozen others were injured when a fight erupted between rival gang members.
Joe Allbaugh, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said you could take the headlines about this incident Sunday night, and switch Oklahoma for South Carolina, and they would be just as plausible.
"Our system in Oklahoma is just like South Carolina's," Allbaugh stated, "relatively the same size, the staff is underpaid and they're over-worked."
The result, Allbaugh said, is that Oklahoma's prisons, like those in South Carolina, are severely understaffed. DOC documents show there are currently more than 700 correctional officer positions vacant, leaving the prisons with an inmate-to-officer ratio of 84 to 1.
"And it becomes worse at night, because we can't fully staff,” said Allbaugh.
Corrections officials said, in terms of correctional officers, the state's 24 prisons are 70 percent staffed, making it very difficult and dangerous to keep the lid from blowing -- as it did in South Carolina -- in the battle for control of prison territory and contraband.
DOC employs specially trained dogs to sniff out cell phones and drugs, but they can't come close to catching all the contraband that comes in.
Cell phones are especially desired by inmates and are smuggled in in massive numbers. Their prevalence is reflected in the number that have been seized in recent years: 2,192 in 2012, 3,757 in 2013, 5,896 in 2014, 7,705 in 2015, 9,766 in 2016, and 6,873 last year.
"Our correctional officers are trained to be on the lookout for contraband...all handled by the gangs," Allbaugh explained, "and it's a dangerous situation -- all for $12.78 an hour. It's pathetic."
Allbaugh said he is grateful that lawmakers approved a small raise for state workers last month. But he says that will amount to an extra 96 cents an hour for his correctional officers and still leave Oklahoma 14 percent below the regional average.
He seems more hopeful that criminal justice reforms now moving through the Legislature will, with time, reduce the state's incarceration rate.
"We're currently number one in the nation," Allbaugh said, with mock pride. "We were number two, but Louisiana passed some criminal justice reform last year, and now we're number one."
Allbaugh recently told lawmakers, due to the dilapidated condition on DOC facilities and to the still-growing inmate population -- now around 28,000 -- the state needs to build two new prisons, at a cost of at least $800 million.