OKLAHOMA CITY — The Department of Corrections is struggling to fill hundreds of correctional officer openings despite a recent boost to the starting salary.
The department needs to hire more than 600 officers to fill current vacancies, said spokesman Matt Elliott. Nearly 45 percent of the agency’s correctional officer jobs are vacant statewide, he said. Normally, vacancy rates are in the 20 to 30 percent range, he said.
And that’s despite a recent legislative initiative that increased starting pay by $2 an hour. A new correctional officer now starts at $15.74 an hour.
“It was sorely needed, and (legislators) understand that,” Elliott said. “Hopefully, this is going to get us some new recruits.”
Still, he said the agency is competing for the same labor pool as the oil industry, and with prisons located in rural areas, there are not just a lot of people looking for work.
He said the agency has been trying to do everything to get the word out.
Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said the state’s prisons are an even more dangerous place when operating short-staffed. Current employees have to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, he said.
He said the raise has helped the agency recruit applicants, but it’s still not enough. Cleveland said another $3 an hour is needed to get people to work “a very, very difficult job.”
“Anybody working behind the bars, they’re getting preyed on every day,” he said. “You get spit on. (Inmates) will pee on you.”
He also said the state agency also needs to change its own culture to treat their employees better.
“DOC has just got a history of not being good to people, their employees,” he said. “They just don’t seem to show complete appreciation of their employees. People like to work somewhere where they’re appreciated.”
Tom Dunning, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said staffing problems have been a problem for at least six years now.
Even though officer pay has increased the past couple of years, employees can go elsewhere and make more working a job that’s not as difficult.
“There’s some need for salary improvement,” he said. “I don’t think that alone is the answer. It’s certainly a good start.”
He said the frequent turnover of leadership atop the agency — three directors in the past six years — is also contributing to staffing troubles.
“DOC having fairly significant turnover with their directors the past few years,” Dunning said. “It’s difficult to see where the agency is going.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.