At the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, Ok., there are 100 corrections officers watching over 1,059 inmates, one in nine of whom has killed someone, says the Wall Street Journal. The job of prison guard, always perilous, is growing harder. Because of tougher sentencing laws and budget constraints, the number of inmates is growing, far outpacing the hiring of prison officers. The number of federal and state prisoners nationwide hit 1.5 million last year, up 51 percent since 1995. The number of prison officers increased 8 percent during the same period, to 239,079.
Because only a fraction of guards work any one shift, the split is even more lopsided. It’s not unusual for only 17 or 18 officers to be responsible for 1,000 inmates. The pressure on guards is growing worse, because governmentl budgets have not kept pace with the increase in inmates. There were 7,795 inmate assaults on prison officers last year, up 13 percent from 2003, according to the American Correctional Association. That’s in part due to staff shortages, but also because of lengthier sentences, which give inmates serving life little to fear. Oklahoma has 2,553 authorized corrections-officer positions overseeing 23,000 inmates, but only 1,968 of those are filled. The state corrections department says it needs $29 million beyond its current $409 million budget to cover some of the vacancies. Democrats and Republicans are calling for more funding, but they disagree on the urgency of the problem. Senate Democrats called a special session in August. The Oklahoma House Republican leadership says it won’t address the matter until February. Corrections officials and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association say they can’t afford to wait. Support staff, from mail clerks to accountants, are routinely asked to watch inmates. The Journal describes how the Oklahoma prison operates. Prison jobs aren’t high-paying — an officer’s starting salary is $20,672. But the prison offers one of the few career opportunities in this remote part of the state.