Oklahoma Correctional Officers Fear Cuts Will Lead To Chaos In Prisons

Monday, February 20th 2012, 3:10 pm
By: News 9

We all know the strain of counting our pennies. But what if slicing from your budget put you in danger?

That's what officers within Oklahoma's Department of Corrections (DOC) say they face every day.

"Less staff, more offenders equals some kind of trouble in the future," said Correctional Officer David Ramsey. "It's a recipe for violence and I'm very concerned."

Ramsey and other DOC officers say they are scared for their lives. They're rallying together to voice their concerns about a growing fear inside the fences at Oklahoma's prisons.

A funding shortfall, despite increased costs, has staffing levels at all-time lows. During some shifts, officers are outnumbered up to 160 to 1.

"We're saturated," said Officer William Weldon. "We're at the point where it's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when."

Weldon is talking about a riot, like the one that happened in October 2011 at North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre. Weldon said a violent outbreak would be next to impossible to control, especially with a new breed of super-criminal born inside the walls.

10/11/2011 Related Story: Prison Riot In Sayre Contained

"A group mentality, gang mentality takes over. And if you don't either control it, quail it or isolate it, contain it within the first few minutes, it just builds momentum."

But officers believe an extra pair of eyes could stop an attack even before it starts.

"That one person backing up an officer may be the difference in violence erupting or not erupting," Officer Joel Bane said.

That's where training comes into play. Every officer News 9 spoke with takes pride in their ability to do their jobs to the highest standard. The DOC also has plans this year to minimize the risk of group violence with increased technology.

"We've increased cameras, locations of cameras, the number of cameras," DOC Spokesperson Jerry Massie said. "So one person can see more of the facility."

But not everyone sees that as the answer.

"You can increase the funding or you can lower the offender population," Amanda Ewing with the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals said.

Ewing has another solution and it starts at the state capitol.

"Every session we're passing more laws, making more things felonies, sending more people to prison," said Ewing. "You got to make a choice. Do you want to send more people to prison or spend more money for corrections, because you can't do both."

Read House Bill 2131, the Penal Reform Law

And the DOC isn't as bad off as other state agencies, receiving just a 0.5 percent cut this fiscal year.

"There's only so much money in that pie," said Massie. "I believe they hear us. They just don't have any more resources to help us."

The state is working to trim the prison population and save millions. The penal reform law allows some non-violent offenders early release and treatment once they're back on the streets.