- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Staff shortages and inmate overcrowding are jeopardizing the safety of Oklahoma prison workers, many of whom are leaving their jobs because of employee burnout, the head of the state’s prison system told a legislative panel on Wednesday.

Robert Patton, executive director of the Department of Corrections, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that despite an 8 percent pay increase for prison workers approved by the Legislature last year, the agency is struggling to retain employees and needs to hire more than 850 prison guards to be fully staffed.

“Some of it is competition for jobs. Some of it, I believe, is employee burnout,” Patton said. “We still have several facilities that are on 12-hour shifts, and when you’re working 12 hours a day, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for family. So I do believe burnout has a lot to do with it.”

When asked if he thought the state was putting correctional officers at risk, Patton responded: “At 67 percent funding (of staffing levels)? Yes.”

It would cost more than $3.6 million annually to fully fund all of the correctional officer positions that are needed - a huge challenge for legislative leaders who are grappling with a $611 million hole in next year’s budget.

While state agency officials typically present a wish list to legislators during budget briefings before the start of the session, House and Senate leaders asked most agencies to return after they learned they’d have about 8 percent less to spend for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman asked Patton how his agency would handle a cut of about 5 percent to its $470 million state-appropriated budget.

Patton said such a cut would force him to eliminate more than 330 positions, cut all education programs for inmates, and eliminate community sentencing programs and work centers.

Patton also suggested Oklahoma’s tough sentencing policies, including a growing list of crimes for which inmates must serve 85 percent of their sentence, are fueling the surge in prison population.

“Our average length of sentence in Oklahoma is 14 years,” Patton said. “That’s a lot of years.”

Oklahoma locks up more women per capita than any other state, and consistently ranks among the top five for highest overall incarceration rate.

Still, even modest efforts to reform Oklahoma’s tough criminal penalties are met with resistance from lawmakers who worry about being perceived as soft on crime.

“We keep saying that you’ve got to do something about the sentencing code,” said Sean Wallace, who represents prison workers as director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. “We just can’t continue to lock up the number of people that we do in this state. We just can’t afford it.”

Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a key player in budget negotiations with the House and governor, said he believes the state should consider building a state-of-the-art prison that would be more efficient to operate and require less staffing.

“We’re way past the point where we need to start that discussion,” Patton responded.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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