DOC understaffed, legislators seek to broaden age limit for guards

Granite_There are 160 prisoners to every one individual guard during the midnight shift at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite.  It's only one of the statewide shortage of corrections.  Department of Correction (DOC) officials say facilities all over the state have barely 75% of their positions filled.  So, some Oklahoma legislators want to widen the job pool, and let younger job-seekers apply.

The Oklahoma DOC says that facilities can currently only hire people that are age 21 and over.  They say it should be lowered to 19, but lawmakers want to make sure applicants are ready for a job working behind bars.

The Oklahoma State Reformatory (OSR) has been in business for nearly 100 years.  But, for the last few years there have been fewer guards to oversee prisoners.  OSR Warden Eric Franklin says it's getting more and more difficult to find people to fill the position, and some guards they do have don't want to make a career of it.  "In the couple years I've been here, I've been perpetually short 30-40 corrections officers," says Franklin.  "A lot of people just aren't cut out for this kind of work."

State Senator Mike Schultz wants to see Senate Bill 1468 signed into law.  It will lower the minimum age of corrections officers to 20 instead of 21.  "They're hoping that they'll be able to attract a few more people that are in high school and college years," says Schultz.

The staffing shortage has caused a lot of problems for the state - money is one of the biggest with overtime salaries to pay.  Since there aren't enough guards to cover each shift, everyone has to pitch in.  "It puts a strain on all of us - having to come in and work on our days off, work overtime," says OSR Lieutenant Jeremy Callahan.

Warden Franklin says it's necessary.  "We can't compromise public safety so we've been paying the overtime," he says.  But, Schultz says that by lowering the age requirement the facilities will receive more applicants, and an increased opportunity to fill empty positions.  "We're not talking about employing people so that the inmates can have more services," says Schultz.  "We're talking about employing people so the people that are working inside those facilities can be safer."

Schultz says he doesn't understand the rationale of the age limit for prison guards.  "I don't know why somebody's eligible to go into the military at 18 years of age," he says.  "But, yet, we won't allow them to be hired by the Department of Corrections to be a security officer until they're 21."

A bill similar to Senate Bill 1468 has passed in the house, and both are in committees.  If a final bill is signed into law, the lowered age limit could become effective as early as July 1, 2008.