With no correctional officers nearby, a prisoner ran into an unlocked office looking for a phone after a knife fight left one man bleeding at the Allen Gamble Correctional Center in Holdenville.

The prisoner called 911 three times.

 “No guard, no guard. We need help immediately,” the man told the dispatcher, according to a recording of one call starting at 10:46 a.m. on Nov. 10.

There was a brawl involving prisoners affiliated with the Neighborhood Crips gang, according to a staff report. The fight ended after one of the men stabbed a 35-year-old prisoner with a homemade weapon.

Kay Thompson, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, initially denied any call had come from a prisoner. But she confirmed the calls happened after listening to 911 dispatch recordings obtained by The Frontier

A correctional officer didn’t call 911 until 11:03 a.m, 17 minutes after the first emergency call from a prisoner came in, according to Hughes County dispatch logs.

There was a correctional officer present during the fight, but they were on the opposite side of the unit conducting a count, Thompson said. 

The agency declined to release how many corrections officers worked the day of the incident but said each facility has a minimum staffing standard that is met each shift. The warden or deputy warden fill in when security employees can’t cover a shift, Thompson said. 

The Allen Gamble Correctional Center has a history of violent incidents and is chronically understaffed. The prison lost staff after the Department of Corrections took over operations from the private company CoreCivic last year. A correctional officer was stabbed five days after the state took control of the facility. 

There were 161 correctional officers working at the Holdenville prison for CoreCivic in August 2023, but that number was down to 106 after the state takeover in October 2023. The facility has since lost even more staff. There were 88 correctional officers working there in February, according to the Department of Corrections.

Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, said understaffing is the corrections industry’s biggest crisis. One Voice United is an advocacy organization for correctional officers. 

Dawe, a former corrections officer, said understaffing can cause life-threatening situations in prisons. 

“What people don’t realize is there’s no 911 in jail,” he said. “We’re 911. If we don’t come, ain’t no one coming, and someone’s gonna die.”

Steven Harpe, executive director of the Department of Corrections, told the Oklahoma House of Representatives at the budget hearing in January that “recruitment and retention continues to be a struggle.” 

The Department of Corrections has made progress in keeping correctional officers, but still needs to recruit more. The agency’s annual attrition rate is a little above 6%, down from 27.91% when Harpe took over in November 2022, he told state lawmakers in January.

As the staffing shortages continued, some employees opted to leave the agency.

“I left the Department of Corrections because I saw the direction it was going. We were getting so short on staff and the violence has went up so much,” said Jason Lemmons, former chief of security at the Dick Connors Correctional Center in Hominy.

Lemmons spoke to lawmakers at the a Oklahoma House of Representatives committee meeting on Feb. 14 to offer insight into the current conditions at state prisons. He said Dick Connors Correctional Center, a medium-security prison operated with 12 to 14 officers for the whole shift to guard about 1,250 men. 

Oklahoma prisons have an average 15:1 prisoner-to-correctional officer ratio, but staffing varies by facility. The Department of Corrections declined to release a prison-by-prison breakdown of staffing, citing security reasons. The Frontier calculated the ratio of staff at Allen Gamble was about 18.7:1, based on a prison population of 1,646 in February. In comparison, Arkansas has a 1:8 prisoner-to-staffing ratio, according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. 

Oklahoma prisons routinely have staffing levels below 50%, according to a 2022 report  from  The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, a state oversight agency. The agency is working on a follow-up evaluation set to be released later this year on whether the Department of Corrections incorporated recommendations outlined in the 2022 report.

Some of the recommendations included pay raises, establishing data sharing with other criminal justice entities and enhancing budgeting practices. Thompson said the agency implemented those recommendations. 

Allegations of violence

Families who have a loved one incarcerated at Allen Gamble Correctional Center said they don’t know what makes the Holdenville prison dangerous, but they are constantly worried about their loved ones.

Kim Taylor’s son is serving a sentence at Allen Gamble. She said prison shouldn’t be a death sentence. 

“If they did something wrong, they should be punished,” she said. “They shouldn’t be killed.”

She said she’s always worried about him because of the violence. She declined to release his name out of fear.

Lorena Bussey also has a son serving time in Allen Gamble. She said he has expressed fear about gang activity at the prison.

“I’ve never heard fear in his voice until Allen Gamble,” Bussey said. 

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, asked for an independent investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in January because he claimed the department had an increase in violent attacks. 

Humphrey said at one House of Representatives committee meeting that he has repeatedly received calls from prisoners and their families begging for his help.

But the Department of Corrections disputes claims that violence is up. Assaults against prisoners and staff have decreased, and there hasn’t been a “statistically significant” increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults, the agency said. The agency also said there was a reduction in inmate-on-staff assaults over the last six months.

“Unfortunately, violent acts do occur within prisons; however, looking at one or two incidents is not indicative of the overall embodiment of how the ODOC is operating and protecting staff and those incarcerated,” the agency said in a press release in response to Humphrey’s call for an investigation. 

“I want to tell you that I get very very mad when I read a nonchalant answer like that,” Humphrey said at a committee meeting in February.

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