Staffing Shortages, Violence Plague Oklahoma Prisons

(AP) Working as a prison guard in Oklahoma is becoming an ever more dangerous job as the state, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, struggles with violence and understaffing at detention facilities. Long hours, dangerous conditions and remote, rural locations have meant fewer guards and a system plagued with increased killings and violence.

Three inmates were killed in separate incidents this year at the same private prison in rural, east-central Oklahoma where a correctional officer was fatally stabbed by an inmate over the summer, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Davis Correctional Facility, a 1,700-bed men’s prison in Holdenville operated by Tennessee-based private prison operator CoreCivic, has been operating at only about 70% of its contractually obligated staffing level, according to a 2021 audit of the facility provided to the AP after an open-records request.

Alan Jay Hershberger, a 61-year-old veteran correctional officer from Missouri who previously worked at a CoreCivic facility in Kansas, was traveling to Oklahoma to work at the prison for six-week stints at a time, according to his family. On July 31, Hershberger was supervising about 30 inmates in a recreation yard at the prison when 49-year-old inmate Gregory Thompson walked past him, pulled a 16-inch, homemade knife from his waistband and plunged it into Hershberger’s back, according to an affidavit from Oklahoma Department of Corrections investigator J. Dale Hunter.

“The victim immediately grabbed his side and quickly walked out of the A Unit South door toward a second correctional officer … and collapsed,” Hunter wrote. “The defendant followed behind the victim and began shouting, “On the set” and “On the Crips,” prison slang indicating the action is the responsibility of the Crips prison gang of which the defendant is a validated member.”

Thompson, who is serving a no-parole life sentence for a 2003 murder conviction, has gang affiliation and a history of prison violence, including a 2010 first-degree manslaughter conviction in a case in which Thompson stabbed another inmate to death in 2009 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Despite his history, Thompson was held among the general population at Davis Correctional Facility, according to the DOC.

“He should not have been in general (population), knowing how violent he was and his history,” said Jessica Scott, a correctional officer who worked with Hershberger during a six-week stint at Davis. “Administrative segregation is where he should have been.”

Scott, who has worked at two other CoreCivic prisons in Kansas and Tennessee, said the facility at Holdenville had more problems maintaining appropriate staffing levels, cell doors that didn’t lock properly and inmates who were particularly violent and noncompliant toward staff.

“It was by far the worst,” said Scott, who now works at a state prison in Kansas. “There’s a reason I’m not there anymore.”

Thompson has been charged with first-degree murder in Hughes County. His public defenders declined to comment on the case.

CoreCivic did not respond directly to questions about Thompson’s offender-level status or its staffing ratio at the time of the killing, but acknowledged the company is taking steps to improve staffing levels.

“CoreCivic is committed to the health and safety of our employees, the individuals in our care and our communities,” CoreCivic spokesman Matthew Davio said in a statement. “We’re also committed to attracting and retaining qualified, professional staff at Davis. However, both public and private correctional facilities have faced staffing challenges across the country.”

Davio said the company used additional funding this year from the Oklahoma Legislature to increase pay for officers at the facility and also has advertised for openings and launched recruiting efforts at military bases and local colleges. A billboard along a highway near the prison, located 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Oklahoma City, advertises starting pay at $22.10 per hour.

Still, another inmate was killed at the prison earlier this month, the third this year, according to the DOC. Correctional officers watched as 32-year-old Darren Padron strangled his cellmate, 27-year-old Dustin Patterson as he pleaded for his life, according to an affidavit from a DOC investigator.

“Correctional officers reported they witnessed Darren R. Padron attack Patterson with various strangulation techniques including a lateral neck restraint, pushing his elbow into Patterson’s throat as he lay prone, and utilizing Patterson’s shirt as a ligature,” the affidavit states.

The officers told DOC investigators that Padron refused to comply with verbal directives and continued to strangle Patterson even after multiple deployments of pepper spray.

Padron also has been charged with first-degree murder. Court records don’t indicate the name of an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Prison records show both Thompson and Padron have been moved to the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, has a long history of problems with inmate violence at its prisons. In one of the deadliest prison attacks in Oklahoma history, four inmates were stabbed to death in 2015 at a prison operated by CCA. Those attacks followed a violent outburst a few months earlier in which some 200 to 300 of the prison’s roughly 1,600 inmates were involved in a brawl that resulted in 11 prisoners being taken to the hospital.

Just last month, the private prison company agreed to settle a federal lawsuit over a Tennessee inmate’s killing in which low staffing levels were blamed.

While some of it is simply the nature of the work, prisons are now also competing against oil field jobs that pay better. The Legislature approved a pay raise for prison guards this year to help combat hiring challenges, boosting recruits in a hopeful sign of improvement.

Private facilities are not alone in their struggle to decrease violence and hire and retain staff. Oklahoma has long had one of the highest average annual homicide rates among all the state prison systems in the country from 2001 to 2019, with 14 homicides per 100,000 inmates during that time. South Carolina topped it only slightly with 15 homicides per 100,000 inmates, according to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bobby Cleveland, a former state lawmaker and director of an association that represents prison workers in Oklahoma, said understaffing at both private and public prisons has indeed led to more violence.

He suggested gradually reducing private prisons.

“They’re constantly going on lockdown because of staff shortages. You’ve got more drugs coming in, you get more phones coming in. And what happens is you get inmates fighting over the contraband and who controls it,” he said, adding “When you’re short staffed, you’re going to have more problems.”