After years of struggling to hire and retain correctional officers, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections says state prisons have an average of one correctional officer for every 15 prisoners. But records reveal some facilities had significantly lower staffing levels last year. 

The Great Plains Correctional Center in rural western Oklahoma had one officer for every 34.4 prisoners at the end of June 2023. About 1,700 men are housed in the medium-security prison in Hinton. 

Great Plains Correctional Center has been the scene of recent violent stabbings. A prisoner on Monday stabbed a correctional officer four times in three different locations using a makeshift knife, according to prison officials. The officer was transported to the hospital and was in stable condition on Tuesday.

Another Great Plains prisoner is charged in Caddo County with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and possession of contraband after he stabbed his cellmate in October 2023 while he slept.

Antonio Monroy allegedly taped papers and magazines around his waist and had two homemade knives with wrist straps and stabbed Rodney Prieto five times, according to court records. Prieto was treated and released from the medical unit. 

In September 2023, four prisoners attacked a prison case manager and stabbed him six times, according to Fox23 News.

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Dick Conner Correctional Center in rural northeastern Oklahoma had the second-lowest staffing levels in the state last year at one correctional officer for every 24 prisoners. The medium security facility houses about 1,200 men.

There are no national standards and needs vary by facility, but staffing levels at these two Oklahoma prisons were lower than any federal prison in the country, according to U.S. Department of Justice numbers from the end of March 2023

The Department of Corrections denied The Frontier’s request for staffing ratios broken down by facility, citing security risks and a part of the Oklahoma Open Record Act that exempts some law enforcement records from public view. But The Frontier obtained staffing figures from June 2023  that prison officials reported to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, a state oversight agency. The numbers reveal that more than half of Oklahoma prisons have staffing levels below 15 prisoners for every one correctional officer.

Kay Thompson, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the agency struggles to hire in rural communities. The agency is constantly trying to recruit and hire more staff, she said. 

The Department of Corrections said on March 29 that it had filled 84.5% of available positions statewide, including for correctional officers and other prison jobs. But the agency wouldn’t release vacancy rates for Great Plains Correctional Center or Dick Conner Correctional Center. 

The Department of Corrections had funding to hire 85 correctional officer positions for the 2023 fiscal year at Great Plains Correctional Center, but was only able to hire 51 officers, prison officials reported to the state oversight agency. Prison officials had funding for 77 correctional officer positions at Dick Conner Correctional Center but only hired 50.

Thompson said understaffing at prisons is a nationwide problem.

“We’ve never said that we’re happy with our staffing levels,” Thompson said. “We would love to have more staff.” 

Violence at some prisons 

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, has criticized the Great Plains and Dick Conner facilities for mistreatment of prisoners and understaffing. Humphrey leads the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee and has called for an independent investigation into prison conditions. 

Carlos Ross was assaulted at Dick Conner Correctional Center in December. His sister Shaykia Braxton detailed the assault at a Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee meeting in February. 

Courtesy Oklahoma Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency.

Braxton said her brother’s attackers stripped him of his clothing, tied him up and tattooed the word “void” across his forehead in big letters using a contraband tool.

The attack ended after a video of the incident was posted on social media. Braxton said that when she saw the video, she had called the prison and told them her brother wasn’t OK, but the prison staff said he was fine. 

Braxton told state lawmakers that there were three days of back-to-back assaults. However, Thompson said the prison was only aware of one of the attacks.

Ross had to have surgery on his eyes after the last attack, Braxton said. He also had a broken nose and broken ribs.

“If I didn’t call, I don’t know what would have happened to my brother. My brother probably wouldn’t be here,” Braxton said. “They left my brother unattended in his cell with just his boxers on. He was in his cell for eight to 10 hours before I called.”

Humphrey said the staff shortage played a crucial role in the attack.

Determining staffing needs

There are no national standards for inmate-to-staff ratios because each facility is different and has different needs, said Bill Bechtold, chief executive of Premier Corrections Consultants, a firm that analyzes staffing levels at jails and prisons.

Most prisons will have a minimum staffing level in order for the facility to run safely, he said. 

The Department of Corrections declined to release the minimum number of staff required for safe operation of Great Plains Correctional Center and Dick Conner Correctional Center for security reasons.

Dick Conner Correctional Center and Great Plains Correctional Center house higher-security prisoners, which Thompson said would require more security staff to ensure minimal violence. 

Prison officials focus on staffing critical areas instead of staffing ratios to ensure safety throughout the facilities, Thompson said. 

Thompson said the Department of Corrections ensures it fills all critical posts and uses upgraded technology when necessary. She said the agency could use technology to replace certain positions to allow staff to move to another location in a facility. 

Jennifer Merkle, general counsel for Premier Corrections Consultants, said technology could never replace the need for staffing.

“All the technology in the world supplements, enhances, and enriches the ability of humans to monitor the inmate population, but at the end of the day, you need people talking to people,” she said. “And you only get that when you’re walking around with the inmate population.”

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