DOC reports show staff conduct problems
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2011
11/27/11 at 7:40 AM
It was a fire earlier this year, near the K-9 unit kennels, that first alerted officials at Howard McLeod Correctional Center about a potentially serious problem.
There was fire damage to the structure, but what most concerned investigators were the other items found nearby: coolers full of wild hog meat, bins of flour and salt, knives and sharpened tools.
The investigation revealed that a prison guard had been looking the other way while inmates trapped and hunted feral hogs on the minimum-security prison's 5,000 acres in Atoka.
"These guys I guess just took it upon themselves to hunt these wild hogs and cook 'em up," Warden Bruce Howard said.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees at men's prisons have faced disciplinary action in recent years for everything from using excessive force to allowing inmates' unauthorized hunting, records show.
A Tulsa World examination of records from 2009 to mid-2011 found the department took more than 130 disciplinary actions during that period against employees at its men's facilities. DOC has about 4,000 employees.
Most actions resulted in a few days' suspension without pay, but about 40 were severe enough to warrant termination.
In the case of the feral hog hunt, public safety was not threatened, nor were any inmates or employees injured, Howard said. Once the hogs were trapped, they were butchered, skinned and placed in ice coolers.
A barbecue grill was found near the structure that burned.
"How they were planning to cook it, I don't really know," Howard said.
Feral hogs have been a nuisance lately for farmers in rural Oklahoma, and the inmates at Howard McLeod grow potatoes, squash, melons and other crops in the prison's 100-acre garden.
The officer who knew about the hunt and stash was suspended for one day without pay, records show.
"The officer should have stopped them," Howard said. That unit is now being monitored more closely, he added.
'Want to be fair'
A review of final orders by the Merit Protection Commission - the board state employees can appeal to in cases of disciplinary action - shows, more often than not, recent DOC decisions regarding employment status have been upheld.
"We're pretty good at crossing the T's and dotting the I's," DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said. "They want to be fair and apply reasonable discipline for the offense, so it will withstand scrutiny."
Oklahoma's prisons have remained at near capacity in recent years and, due to budget cuts, DOC has been staffed at only about 65 percent. The department has also faced furloughs and hiring freezes.
The result is often overworked guards and a high turnover rate, Massie said.
"People have to stay when someone doesn't show up for their shift, and over time, that's going to wear you down," he said. "We end up burning people out."
And it can be tough for DOC to attract new recruits to staff its facilities, which are often in remote corners of the state. The recent boom in oil-field jobs in Oklahoma has also lured potential hires away, Massie said.
"It's hard to recruit somebody when you tell them, 'Oh, by the way, you're going to get two days off each month unpaid," he said.
Furloughs ended with the past fiscal year, and DOC is now training a large recruiting class for security officers at its academy in Oklahoma City, Massie said.
The discipline records show issues that might be common in any office: Having personality conflicts, not properly filling out forms and using state computers to peruse Facebook, MySpace, the James Beard Foundation culinary website and to shop for Jeeps on Craigslist.
Sometimes, DOC employees face strict disciplinary action for offenses that would be no big deal in other workplace environments, but must be taken seriously in a prison: Packing forks in their lunch bags, not putting food in clear baggies, bringing their cell phones inside the building. Cell phones are considered contraband on state prison grounds.
Prison employees must follow strict rules because the consequences can be lethal.
Inmate Paul Duran Jr. died in 2009 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester after guards moved him into a cell with Jesse Dalton, whom he had testified against in court years earlier on a homicide case.
The inmates were supposed to be kept apart, but Dalton beat Duran to death after guards placed them together in a locked cell.
Prison officials fired Leroy Henry, a security manager in the unit, and suspended another employee, Darrell Wilson, without pay for five days. Records show Wilson was later terminated in 2010 for other policy violations, including not reporting contraband and asking a subordinate co-worker for a loan.
A lawsuit filed in 2010 in federal district court by Duran's sister alleges his death was part of a "gladiator system" used to discipline inmates, and that the inmates' files were clearly marked to keep them separated. The suit is pending.
In some cases, employees were suspended or terminated for accusations of inappropriate relationships with inmates - not always sexual in nature. Guards may have performed favors for inmates - mailing or delivering items to inmates that were dropped off by relatives at a correctional facility fence line.
'Trust is everything'
Sometimes, interactions between DOC employees are the cause of disciplinary actions.
A guard at Dick Conner was suspended without pay in 2009 for telling another guard if they were to fight, he would kill him.
He then hugged the co-worker and said, "Hey, we're OK." He attempted to hug the co-worker again, but was rebuffed and told: "Huh-uh. I don't want you doing something like licking my ear."
In March 2011, the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission denied the appeal of a corrections officer at Bill Johnson Correctional Center and upheld DOC's decision to demote him for "failing to afford respect due a co-worker in violation of the DOC Code of Conduct."
The officer was demoted from the rank of Security Officer IV (sergeant) to Security Officer III (corporal) after he admitted to having sexual relations with the girlfriend of a fellow corrections officer, records show.
As the relationship became common knowledge among staff and some inmates, the officer was subjected to "catcalls" from the inmates.
The warden was concerned about the affair's impact on staff and inmates at the facility, because "trust is everything in a correctional facility and using good judgment is critical for a sergeant because that is a leadership position," according to Merit Protection Commission records.
In February 2009, a corrections officer transporting inmates from medical appointments at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington to various DOC community work centers and stopped at a McDonald's in Purcell.
He reportedly left the inmates unattended and went inside to order food and use the rest room. Some of the inmates got out to smoke, and some went inside to order food and use the rest room.
The McDonald's is located about 15 minutes from both the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (maximum security) and Joseph Harp (medium security).
The offenders being transported were from minimum-security community work centers.
Disciplinary records state, "The citizens of this area are well aware of the offenders housed at these two facilities."
A group of at least 30 children and some teenagers were in the restaurant, and "the citizens were naturally alarmed by observing the offenders in this McDonald's since they had no discernible means of knowing these were offenders from (a) community work center."
The officer was suspended without pay for eight days.
Repeated disciplinary actions often result in termination.
A Lawton Community Corrections officer was suspended without pay in 2009 for sending sexually explicit texts to a female co-worker. He was fired in 2010 for sending a co-worker a racially offensive text message with an image of a hangman's noose.
The officer appealed his termination, but the Merit Protection Commission upheld the DOC's decision.
Some of the employee actions resulting in discipline by DOC include:
- In March 2009, a construction and maintenance worker was suspended without pay for failing to install security cameras in a timely fashion after the equipment was delivered to Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center. The cameras sat around for nearly two months.
- In June 2009, an officer at Howard McLeod was fired for using excessive force on an inmate in October 2008, punching him so hard he fell on the floor. The officer also kicked the inmate and fractured his eye socket.
- In June 2011, an officer at the Madill Work Center was suspended without pay for failing to notice that an inmate had put a dummy in his bunk to disguise the fact that he had escaped.
- In June 2011, an officer was fired for using excessive force without just cause at Joseph Harp Correctional Center. He pepper-sprayed an inmate while cuffing him and then punched him several times after he was cuffed, bloodying his face and busting his lip.
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477