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Teenage Prison Guards in Oklahoma?

Oklahoma houses nearly 18,800 inmates in 24 state institutions, and the state’s Board of Corrections has been struggling to hire corrections officers to meet the demand, with the current ratio being about one officer for every 11 inmates.

In order to broaden the range of applicants, the Board of Corrections has decided to propose legislation set for a 2020 docket to lower the minimum age to as young as 18, reports Trevor Brown of Oklahoma Watch, in a story crossposted by The Journal Record. 

The current minimum age for applicants is 20 years old, so this new legislation begs the question: “Are 18- or 19-year-olds able to perform such a potentially dangerous and sensitive job?”

Oklahoma states have struggled for years to attract new hires and get their turnover rate under control. Earlier this year, they bumped the hourly pay raise by $2, but any increase in applicants they’ve seen hasn’t been enough, according to Oklahoma Watch.

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the statewide organization for Corrections Department staffers, said he hasn’t talked to a single correctional officer who supports the move.

Nicole McAfee, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, clearly doesn’t support the legislation either.

“It is scary to think about teenagers being in these positions of power in a system where they have limited resources,” McAfee told The Journal Record. “That’s putting a lot of responsibilities, as well as liabilities, in their hands.”

It is not difficult to see why being a corrections officer is not a walk in the park.

In late November, on Rikers Island, a city Department of Corrections Officer was stabbed in the neck with a “wooden object” at 4:30 in the morning while trying to help an inmate going to court, according to NY1 and CBS New York.

Meanwhile, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) released a statement explaining how this assault is only the most recent example of New York City’s “failed criminal justice approach,” NY1 reports.

In the statement obtained from CBS New York, COBA President Elias Husamudeen addressed the city and legislators, saying, “Instead of giving inmates who assault our members a free pass or making us wait seven years for safer jails, the City needs to start listening to us and make the jails safer now.”

Beyond fear of being harmed by inmates, some female corrections officers have dealt with sexual harassment. One Florida Corrections Officer, Taronica White, filed 10 incident reports for sexual misconduct in her first week on the job, the Washington Post reports.

Incidents like these reaffirm Bobby Cleveland’s beliefs against hiring 18-year-olds to be correctional officials.

“They want someone they can trust, someone who they can depend on,” Cleveland told The Journal Record. “Because this is a hard job: it’s stressful, it’s dangerous and there’s nothing easy about it.”

Oklahoma wouldn’t be the only state in the nation with a lower minimum age requirement to become a correctional official.

The Journal Record reports that to work in a state prison in Texas or New Mexico, applicants can be 18-years-old. Kansas and Florida’s minimum age is 19. “But most states, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, have higher age limits,” they clarify.

McAfee said Oklahoma’s lower age proposal also is troubling because of what it alludes and represents for the future. She told The Journal Record that lawmakers must continue to work on criminal justice reform, and “policymakers should focus more on reducing the number of incarcerated Oklahomans than trying to increase the number of correctional officers who oversee them.”

“We need to have a broader conversation about our attitude towards prisons in Oklahoma,” McAfee said.

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for TCR.