hands in prisonNo state agency has escaped budget cuts unscathed. For many Oklahomans, the effects are most visible in their schools and communities, as their children lose teachers and their friends and neighbors lose needed health care services.

Less visible is the toll that budget cuts have taken on Oklahoma’s prison system. Appropriations to the Department of Corrections have fallen from $527 million in 2005 (in 2015 dollars) to $485 million this year. That’s just enough to keep decaying facilities operating at minimal staffing levels as all “extras” — the services to treat and rehabilitate offenders — are cut to the bare minimum. The result is a dangerous situation inside prison walls, with inadequate supervision, no treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and little hope for rehabilitation for the state’s inmates.

Oklahoma’s prisons are dangerously understaffed

At the most basic level, the Department of Corrections simply doesn’t have the workforce to adequately staff all of its prisons. While the prison population grows steadily each year, the number of correctional officers has declined precipitously. Since 2000, the inmate population in public prisons has grown by over 26 percent, while the correctional officer workforce has declined by 25 percent. While prisons are filled to 122 percent of their operating capacity, DOC is funded for only 67 percent of its staffing needs.

For the staff that remains, very low pay further exacerbates the problem. With a paltry starting salary of around $26,500 – just above the poverty level for a family of four — even funded open positions for correctional officers go unfilled. With such poor pay and working conditions, it’s no wonder that staff turnover is extremely high, at about 35 percent per year.

Our failure to staff prisons appropriately has already had tragic consequences for inmate and officers alike. Between 2001 and 2012, there were 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates – more than three times the national average. In September 2015, four inmates were killed during a riot at the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private prison in Cushing. Correctional officers are desperate: “It’s only through the grace of God that the prison population and gangs let our guards go home every night,” Department of Corrections Interim Director Joe Allbaugh said at a recent Oklahoma Watch-Out forum.

Badly-needed mental health services aren’t available

The problems with inadequate staffing don’t end with correctional officers. The Department of Corrections can’t compete with private sector salaries for mental health professionals. As a result, as of last year, 10 of 62 psychologist positions and 3 of 8.5 psychiatrist or prescribing-provider positions were unfilled.

“Only seven of Oklahoma’s 17 major prisons were built to house inmates. Most were originally built to be boys’ homes, hospitals, or armories; some were built before Oklahoma became a state in 1907.”

That means that despite a growing number of inmates with serious mental illness, very few receive services. Out of 9,432 inmates with symptoms of severe mental illness in 2014, fewer than 3,000 inmates received an individual therapy session per month, and only 851 attended a group session. The vast majority go untreated, or are merely prescribed drugs, neither of which can be seriously thought of as adequate treatment.

Vital programs are squeezed out to make room for more inmates.

Only seven of Oklahoma’s 17 major prisons were built to house inmates. Most were originally built to be boys’ homes, hospitals, or armories; some were built before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. About 1 in 6 beds are “temporary,” squeezed into gymnasiums and other public areas.

Such severe overcrowding pushes out vital rehabilitation programs and leaves the Department of Corrections simply warehousing people. As Director Allbaugh put it,

“This is how we shoot ourselves in the other foot: we take program space away from those programs that men and women [who are] incarcerated absolutely need. A lot of our population has no training, no education, so programs are things to better themselves so when they return to society they become a credit to society, not a debit to society.”

The situation is only getting worse. In early May, the Oklahoma Board of Corrections approved a plan to lease the North Fork Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed last year, and operate it with Corrections staff. The state will move inmates from community work centers to the 2,400 bed facility, expecting to save $18 million by consolidating the smaller facilities. Similar moves have been considered in recent months in Minnesota and Michigan, as states reluctant to build new prisons see an opportunity to ease overcrowding with already-existing private facilities.

The Corrections crisis doesn’t receive as much attention as the crises in Oklahoma schools and hospitals; it’s much easier to ignore the plight of people who have committed crimes than of elementary school students or cancer patients. But incarcerated Oklahomans are also sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents, and grandparents. And budget cuts are having debilitating, and sometimes fatal, consequences in prisons. If we hope to allow formerly incarcerated Oklahomans a chance to turn their lives around and to return home as productive citizens and engaged community members, we need to invest in better conditions in our prisons — and we absolutely can’t allow them to deteriorate any further.