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Beyond The Death Chamber: Patton’s Tenure At DOC

A sign advertising career opportunities at the prison in Helena, Oklahoma
Kate Carlton Greer
A sign advertising career opportunities at the prison in Helena, Oklahoma


Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton announced his resignation earlier this month, and he’ll begin taking leave at the end of this week. Under his watch, the state gained national attention for multiple execution snafus. But Patton’s tenure goes beyond the death chamber.

Volatile Yards

Vending machines line the drab walls and small tables crowd the visitors’ room at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in northwest Oklahoma. An inmate, who has requested to remain anonymous because of safety concerns, sits in the back corner with a crocheted hat and scarf and some handmade teddy bears. He agreed to go by his initials: E.F.  

“We have a code on the yard. We don't put our business out there too deep. But I'll tell you, it's volatile,” says E.F.

E.F. shows off the patriotic scarf and hat and a picture of a massive crocheted American flag blanket that he and other inmates made as part of an inmate-led group called the Flag Afghan Project. They make blankets for veterans and families of fallen vets. He says it helps distract from the morale at the medium-security prison.

Credit Provided
Inmates involved in the Flag Afghan Project hold a crocheted flag they made in 2010

“The yard's gotten pretty wild. It's way overcrowded, they're understaffed," E.F. says. "The quality of the inmate that has been transferred over here is a lot different than what used to be here.”

Months after Patton took over in 2014, he transferred DOC inmates out of county jails to prisons across the state to save money on jail per diem rates. The move helped balance the agency’s budget, but it worsened already-present overcrowding issues.

State facilities now hover around 120 percent capacity, and correctional officers say that puts added stress on an already delicate environment.

“We hear from people who work inside facilities that the only reason they get to go home every day is because the offenders let them go home every day,” says Tom Dunning, spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, a group that represents correctional officers. Prisons are facing a staffing shortage, and now, Dunning says some employees are thrust into new roles.

“You may have someone who is a case manager and they spent years doing that, now walking the floor the where the offenders are,” Dunning says.

“Now, because of turnover and short staff they're having to do that. That's not an optimal situation.”

Dunning and his colleagues say Patton isn’t the only one to blame for the overcrowding, understaffing and tight budget.

Recruit and Retain

Turnover is always high in corrections. And Terri Watkins from the DOC points to an added challenge for recruiting in Oklahoma.

“We have a situation with the oil and gas industry. They can pay double on an hourly basis what we can pay,” she says.

Watkins says Patton worked hard to recruit and retain employees while balancing the budget. It’s not an easy feat. She calls Patton a talented manager who was unafraid to institute change.

“You begin to look at where your priorities are. Our priorities needed to be in hiring correctional officers, case managers, food-service workers. It might not be in some other areas. So we began pulling budgets in,” Watkins says.

Now, the DOC is focused on filling job vacancies.

As you enter the little town of Helena, where the James Crabtree Correctional Center is located, a big green “hiring” sign advertises the prison’s career opportunities. The prison’s warden Jason Bryant calls the sign his baby.

He has about 70 staff members overseeing nearly 1200 offenders. Most of the personnel is new, including both Bryant and his deputy, who have been at the prison for less than one year. Bryant says he needs roughly 50 more workers to be fully staffed.

Prison Projects on Hold

Employee shortages and tight budgets led to cutbacks inside the prison recently, like an art program for offenders called The Bridge Project.

“If I don't have the right staff to supervise the project, then that's an example of something that -- we don't necessarily cut, but we'll suspend it temporarily until we can find the right number of staff,” Bryant says.

E.F. says fewer programs for offenders lead to a tenser environment.

“There’s not a lot for the inmates to do here,” E.F. says.

“If you take a man and you get him off of drugs, you get him off of booze, you get him off all of his addictions and then you put him somewhere and there's nothing left to do, he's going to go right back to all that.”

Director Robert Patton begins his leave on Christmas Day and will take a job next year in Arizona to be close to family. As for whether the general prison population knows or cares whom the executive director of the DOC is, E.F. paused, praised former director Justin Jones, and then paused again.

“That was a lot of hoorahs when they said he was going back to Arizona. They had their fill of what he had done in the Oklahoma DOC,” he says.

E.F. isn’t eligible for parole until 2031, so he’ll see at least another director or two during his time.

It’s unclear who takes over next, but E.F. hopes whoever it is has a dog in the fight, something he thinks Patton lacked.

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