My story as a daughter of Oklahoma corrections officers

Chelsea Fiedler

Chelsea Fiedler is a senior at Rogers State University, majoring in Political Science. Before interning at OK Policy, Chelsea was a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa and served as Student Government Association President at Rogers State University. Chelsea plans to attend law school after graduation. 

I was born and raised in the small town of Vinita, Oklahoma. My father was honorably discharged after eight years in the Army and began working at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center (NOCC) shortly before my birth. My mother stayed home to take care of my older sister and me until I was ten years old. We didn’t have a lot of money, but it never felt that way. My sister and I were always fed and clothed adequately, and my mother made sure we were getting a good education at both school and home. In 2005, when I was nine years old, my mother started work at NOCC as a correctional officer. She worked her way up the ranks and is now a lieutenant. Before my mom started working at NOCC, there was little talk about the facility at home. Now that both of my parents play crucial roles on the compound, they frequently discuss aspects of their work at home.

My family faces many challenges due to my parents’ jobs. We live in fear that my parents will lose their jobs due to the lack of funding at the state level. In 2010, furloughs hit our family hard, and my parents had to consider other employment options. This could have meant moving out of my hometown or even out of the state. We still worry that NOCC will be shut down or turned into a private facility. My parents will not work at a private prison, because they would likely get a massive pay cut and would be at greater security risk due to private prisons’ tendency to hire fewer correctional officers than a public facility would.

Even in the public facility, I am afraid for my parents’ safety. Working in corrections brings as many safety risks as other law enforcement fields. Fortunately, when NOCC has the resources, they do invest in training officers and staff. My parents and other officers are trained in areas like hostage negotiation, gang activity, and contraband seizure.

Although well-trained officers are always on hand, the job has dangers. My mom used to be part of the facility’s Correctional Emergency Response Team. CERT responds to the most dangerous situations within corrections; my mom had to go on manhunts, searching in very dangerous places for escaped offenders. She eventually had to step down from CERT due to her health, and though I am proud of her for taking on the responsibility of being a CERT member, I am very glad for her safety now that she has stepped down.

Safety risks also arise within the facility. Last year, four inmates were killed in a private facility after a fight broke out. Even more recently, there was an assault on an officer at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center. My mother never shows me that she’s worried about her safety, but I couldn’t help but think that the officer who was assaulted could easily have been my mom.

On top of escapees and fights, gangs and contraband are massive issues within the correctional system. Inmates often feel compelled to join gangs to protect themselves, yet gangs contribute to a more hostile environment within the facility. Contraband, such as cell phones, knives, and drugs, are also smuggled into the facility. Having to worry about offenders possessing weapons or being under the influence of drugs makes my parents’ jobs much more difficult.

People with mental health issues are also more frequently being sent to correctional institutions — people who used to go to mental health facilities like Eastern State Hospital, a mental hospital next to NOCC that closed in 2009. Correctional officers and staff members are not trained to properly handle people with serious mental health issues. My parents often tell me about how this makes them afraid for their safety and for the safety of the inmates.

[pullquote]“My parents are in physical pain due to their jobs, with surgery and pain management becoming common topics in our household. … I often worry what would happen if I were to start my career far away.”[/pullquote]

These problems have taken a great emotional, physical, and financial toll on our family. Both of my parents are approaching retirement, but they are not prepared for living without a full-time income. State retirement helps ease my parents’ worries, but they risk losing retirement benefits if they seek employment elsewhere. My parents have also not received a raise in years; they only ever see a pay increase if they are promoted to another position. I’ve had to look into buying my own health insurance to help my parents save money.

My parents are in physical pain due to their jobs, with surgery and pain management becoming common topics in our household. They are often exhausted from work, and they cannot spend long periods of time out with my sister and me. Even on their days off, they get calls from colleagues asking for help to solve problems. They also have to pick up extra shifts to cover short-staffed areas — an issue that looks to get worse due to the Department of Corrections’ hiring freeze. I step in where I can to help with house chores and plan activities to keep their minds off their stressful jobs, but I’m currently pursuing a postgraduate education and may not be near Vinita forever. I often worry what would happen if I were to start my career far away.

I have faith that my family will get through the challenges of working in corrections, but it is often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have faced many hardships, but I am eternally grateful to have such supportive, hard-working parents who taught me what it means to have passion and dedication.

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2 thoughts on “My story as a daughter of Oklahoma corrections officers

  1. Chelsea, I am happy you took the time to share your story. Sorry to say, you and your parents are not the only ones facing such decisions/hardships. Correctional officers throughout the state face similar problems regarding safety, staffing, and pay. When your parents (or others) retire there are no promotions to get a pay increase and current retirees have not had a cost of living increase in ten years. As one of the two state retiree representatives to the OPEA board, I can tell you we are working to correct that situation. We need your and your parents (and other state employees both active and retired) to help. Please contact your state representative and state senator and ask for their support in getting a COLA for our state retirees. Thanks again for your story and know there are people that understand and are working to alleviate the situation.

  2. Chelsea I am a facebook friend of your mother’s for about 20 years now. Both your mother and father are so very proud of the woman you’ve become. Thank you for educating me, a nobody of the American Correction System. Because of you, you have made me realise the true danger your parents face day after day, not to mention no pay cuts. It might make a difference if you sent your article to the Federal Government if you have not done so already. Now, not only are your parents proud of you…so am I. Job well done!!

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