The name may have changed, but violence continues to plague a former private prison in Holdenville, including the day it was renamed for an officer who was fatally stabbed at a different facility.
A prisoner stabbed a correctional officer at the former Davis Correctional Facility the morning of Oct. 6, before a ceremony celebrating its renaming as the Allen Gamble Correctional Center. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections took over management of the medium-security prison from the private contractor CoreCivic at the beginning of October.
The Holdenville prison, which houses about 1,600 male prisoners, has a history of chronic understaffing and violence. CoreCivic struggled to hire and keep enough correctional officers at the facility. The prison has lost more staff since the Department of Corrections took over. The Holdenville prison had 273 employees on Aug. 1, with 161 listed as detention officers, the Department of Corrections said. After the state takeover, only 106 correctional officers remained.
The Department of Corrections kept about 72% of the total staff, but some chose to stay with CoreCivic because the for-profit company paid higher wages and other workers couldn’t pass a state background check, said Kay Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. CoreCivic advertises pay starting at $22.10 an hour for correctional officers while state correctional officers start at $42,553 a year, which equates to $20.46 an hour for a 40 hour work week.
Bobby Cleveland, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, a group that represents Department of Corrections employees, was at the prison on Oct. 6 when the stabbing occurred. Violence is a statewide problem that boils down to low staffing, he said.
Cleveland described the low staffing and conditions as a “big mess.” He said the state prisons are short-handed, creating a dangerous environment.
The current prisoner-to-correctional officer ratio in Oklahoma prisons is 15:1. The Department of Corrections would like to get that number lowered and is working on increasing recruiting efforts, Thompson said.
Comparatively, the Arkansas Department of Corrections says its current correctional officer staffing ratio is 1:8.
Better pay would help the agency recruit and keep more workers, Cleveland said. Department of Corrections employees got a raise in 2022, when correctional officers saw a 30% pay increase. Cleveland said another pay raise is needed for all correctional staff because it can be dangerous work.
Ongoing problems with violence
During the dedication ceremony in Holdenville, Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, called the prison safe.
“I’m thankful this facility is now becoming a safe facility. I’m thankful for our private partners … but as the state is able now to begin taking some of these facilities, I believe we can take them to the next level,” he said.
Meanwhile, family members swarmed a Facebook live video of the ceremony with concerns about their loved ones serving time at the prison in Holdenville. Some complained that the Department of Corrections doesn’t share enough information with families when violent incidents occur.
“Please keep their lives as a priority. End the stabbings and deaths. That are swept under the rug,” Lydia Rollins wrote.
The Department of Corrections didn’t immediately release information about the stabbing. The only indication the officer had survived came after a Facebook commenter asked if he was OK.
“He is. Thank you for your concern,” The agency wrote in response.
Emily Shelton, founder of Hooked on Justice, an advocacy group dedicated to bringing community awareness to criminal justice issues, said Oklahoma prisons are unsafe due to low staffing, drugs, and prison tensions.
Shelton’s son and her husband are incarcerated at Oklahoma Department of Corrections facilities but previously spent time at a former private prison in Holdenville.
“I fear every day that I will get a phone call telling me my loved one is dead,” she said.
Stabbings have been an ongoing problem in Holdenville. Since January 2022, at least four people have been fatally stabbed at the facility, including three prisoners and one correctional officer. There were 18 stabbings at the Holdenville prison during the first seven months of 2022 alone, according to county emergency records.
Roger Thompson said in an email to The Frontier after the dedication that the assault before the ceremony was problematic.
“With the number of incarcerated in our prison system, many of whom are very bad people, incidents will occur,” he wrote. “The very reason for the naming of the new facility was due to a violent incident where Mr. Gamble lost his life.”
Gamble died on June 5, 2000, after answering a distress call from another officer at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. Officer William Callaway had been stabbed 13 times by a prisoner but managed to escape. Gamble was stabbed twice in the neck after he rushed to help and died from his injuries.