Over pizza and soda in a strip mall restaurant, Oklahoma prison guards spoke with The Frontier about being so exhausted from working 60 to 70-hours a week that they sometimes fall asleep while driving home.
One man said he hit a mailbox after dozing off behind the wheel after work.
Others said they can’t use their vacation or sick leave because there aren’t enough staff to cover for them.
“These guy work themselves to death,” one guard said. “This stuff takes a toll on your body, working four or five years, 12 hours or more a day.”
The guards spoke on the condition of anonymity because Department of Corrections policies forbid them from talking to the media about their jobs.
Oklahoma prisons are facing critical staffing shortages — the Oklahoma Department of Corrections spent $15.5 million on overtime pay last fiscal year.
Department of Corrections overtime costs grew 9 percent last fiscal year, up from $14.2 million the previous year.
Turnover rates for prison guards are notoriously high nationwide. In Oklahoma, the annual turnover rate is about 25 percent, according to the Department of Corrections.
About one-third of state correctional officer jobs are vacant in the state.
“We can’t solve this problem until we can pay officers enough to retain them,” said Jackie Switzer, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an organization that represents prison guards in the state.
The starting pay for correctional officers in Oklahoma is $13.78 an hour — just a few cents more than what clerks at 7-Eleven make.
This spring, state lawmakers passed a 3 percent raise for Oklahoma correctional officers, but the cost of employee health insurance premiums also went up this year— all but wiping out the pay increase.
“The pay increase is not enough — it barely makes a dent,” Switzer said.
More than half of guard jobs vacant at one state prison
The state has had notable problems staffing North Fork Correctional Center, a medium security prison in the rural, western Oklahoma town of Sayre. The unemployment rate in Beckham County, where North Fork is located, consistently hovers around 3 percent.
About 52 percent of correctional officer positions at North Fork are vacant. The Department of Corrections has been forced to close a 360-bed housing unit there because there are not enough correctional officers to staff it.
Four correctional officers from other Oklahoma prisons have to be rotated out of North Fork, working four days on and three days off.
In August, North Fork was the scene of a violent brawl where two rival groups of inmates attacked each other with crude stabbing weapons made out of sharpened metal and plexiglass. Six inmates were stabbed during the fight – four of them had to be hospitalized for their injuries.
Staffing shortages were not a contributing factor in the brawl, the Department of Corrections said in a written response to questions about the incident.
“The proper staffing levels were present on the unit, and staff were attempting to address tension on the unit when the assault began,” the Department of Corrections said in a statement. “The assault was an inmate-on-inmate issue that resulted in two groups attacking each other. Staff responded and defused the situation.”
The Department of Corrections is able to staff North Fork with the minimum number of officers to oversee daily operations, but not at what the agency describes as optimal levels, it said in written responses to The Frontier’s questions about staffing at the facility.
“We don’t have anything showing an increase in violence due to staffing shortages. But common sense dictates that staff shortages means fewer officers working, and inmates may be more likely to act out or misbehave,” the Department of Corrections said.
Guards work mandatory overtime
Oklahoma prison guards now work mandatory 12 hour shifts, five to six days a week — what boils down to a 60- to 72-hour work week.
Oklahoma prisons shifted to 12 hour shifts “to relieve staff shortages and let officers have at least one scheduled day off per week,” the Department of Corrections said.
“Six 12 hour shifts with a day off equals 72 hours or more being worked in a 144 hour period,” Switzer said. “That is still extremely unsafe for these officers.”
In 2016, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill that gave the director of the Department of Corrections the power to make a public declaration of emergency when due to staff shortages, correctional officers are required to work more than two double shifts at a facility in a seven-day period. A double shift is defined in the bill as two, eight-hour shifts in a 24 hour period.
Correctional officers who spoke to The Frontier said state prisons moved staffing to mandatory 12 hour shifts after the bill was adopted.
Outgoing Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, who authored the double-shift bill, said he intended the legislation to get the Department of Corrections to make an official declaration of an emergency if prison guards were working excessive amounts overtime.
Many prison guards had complained of being asked to work a second shift with as little as 30 minutes notice, he said.
“We wrote the bill to stop all the double shifts,” Cleveland said. “It’s not the best, but 12-hour shifts are better than working 16-hour shifts.”
The wording of the legislation is such that it makes the emergency declaration optional.
“We don’t read it as requiring a specific action,” The Department of Corrections said. “The statute gives the director the power to declare an emergency, and we read that to mean he has discretion. We have procedures to address emergency situations related to staffing issues – as any prison system must.”
Cleveland, past chair of the House public safety committee, said he believes the state needs to fill as many as 1,000 correctional officer positions to meet the immediate need.
“The only way to do it is to get the appropriations to raise their pay,” he said.
Prison guards under pressure
Fed up with working conditions he described as dangerous and demoralizing, Noble resident James Larrick decided to post videos on YouTube he made inside a Department of Corrections prison in Lexington.
He made the videos using a hidden camera on his wrist watch before quitting his job as a correctional officer.
In one video, made on Christmas Eve 2016, a Department of Corrections shift supervisor admonished staff for failing to conduct proper security checks after an inmate committed suicide in his cell, but wasn’t found until hours later.
“That guy had been dead for a minute,” the correctional officer said in the video. “That motherfucker was already stiff or getting stiff.”
The supervisor, identified in court documents as David Kerr, bemoaned staffing shortages and said he was going to supervise the prison’s solitary confinement unit “on paper” during his Christmas Eve shift.
“There ain’t no pass on,” Kerr said in the video. “We’re kinda gonna backdoor some shit today, so everybody needs to be on their toes.”
The Department of Corrections fired Kerr after Larricks’ videos surfaced online.
Kerr was later reinstated with back pay after a 10-day suspension, according to documents filed with the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission.
In an interview, Larrick said he decided to quit his job as a prison guard after Lexington switched from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts.
“I resented the way they were treating me over mandatory overtime and there were some situations I wasn’t capable of giving it to them,” he said. “They can’t keep people because they just wear them out.”
Sometimes, exhausted guards would sleep on the job, he said.
“It’s just a dangerous situation. Everyone is tired and overworked,” Larrick said. “I had 220 felons locked in a room with me. All I had was pepper spray and a radio.”
Larrick decided to post his hidden camera videos online to bring attention to conditions inside Oklahoma prisons, he said.
In July 2017, the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office charged Larrick with one count of bringing a cell phone or electronic device into a prison — a felony — for making the videos.
He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a five-year deferred sentence.
Now, Larrick works as an overnight delivery driver for 7-Eleven stores.
He says the job is safer and a lot less stressful than being a prison guard.