STRINGTOWN, OK -- Jason Bales, a murderer sentenced to life without parole, climbed over the razor wire fence of the Mack Alford Correctional Center in the early morning of Dec.3.
He disappeared for six days.
Authorities finally caught him in Hugo, Okla. But it was a tense week for residents of Atoka County.
"It certainly gets a little more alarmed if they see that it's a convicted murderer, so we're always a little more sensitive to what the public feels. We live in that same community as well," Jerry Massie, Department of Corrections spokesman, said.
Low staffing has always been a concern across the state, Massie said.
"But, it has gotten worse in the last four or five years, as the numbers keep dropping," he said.
Mack Alford has 787 total inmates. But only 78 officers work there - and not all 78 are on duty at the same time.
The most officers ever on-shift at a time is 30. Which means there's one officer for every 26 inmates.
And the prison only has 23 officers on the overnight shift.
News 12 spoke with a former prison officer - who wants to remain anonymous - who describes the levels as "dangerously low."
"I think the concern that we have is that something major might happen," Massie said. "And we might not have the staff there to respond to it appropriately."
Gary McCool served as Atoka County sheriff for 24 years. He's worried about the situation at the prison.
"Not only at Mack Alford, but many of our state institutions here in the state of Oklahoma," he said. "They're working short handed. And these people need some help."
Mack Alford officers are often forced to work a double shift if an officer doesn't show up for the next shift to relieve them, McCool said.
"In my opinion it'd be extremely dangerous," he said. "All it takes is one person to make a slip, and before you know it you've got dope coming in, you've got a possible escape."
Massie doesn't know for sure whether Bales' escape is a direct result of the low staff.
"You can't say without a shadow of a doubt that if you'd had one or two or three more people that might have been in the area at the time, that that might not have made a difference," he said.
Adding to the problem is a high turnover rate of qualified officers.
Sixty percent of prison staffers leave within the first 18 months, according to DOC.
Massie said the reason for the turnover is the low pay. It's another bullet point he wants the legislature to address.
"Some additional funds to raise that starting salary, and bump some other people up that are in those series, to make it more attractive for them to start with. And then a little more attractive for them to stay," he said.
State Senator Josh Brecheen said one of his top priorities is decreasing the high turnover rate.
"It's a huge problem. And if we are utilizing state resources to train individuals, and they're leaving at that rate of 60 percent, then we've got to do something, because that is not efficient government," he said.
Brecheen thinks the government needs to invest in DOC salaries.
"And a pay raise - even though it may cost more in the long run - it may be a savings to the state," he said.
But he can't predict how the session will play out.
"You turn in a request for a 9 percent increase. It would be to every legislators benefit to meet that request," he said. "But there are only so many dollars to go around."
Massie isn't optimistic they're going to get the funding they requested.
"We're not. We won't," he said. "We are not one that's particularly popular to fund, at the amount that we feel like we need."
Brecheen said in addition to funding, there's other measures the state can take to deal with the overcrowding situation - like re-thinking how the state deals with non-violent offenders.
"We've got to reexamine this mentality that locking them up in all circumstances is the best solution. For non-violent offenders there are better ways," he said. "And those are the discussions we need to continue to have at the Capitol."
Back home, McCool wants to see more funding for prisons to keep his county safe.
"If people want inmates to be kept in the penitentiary, they're gonna have to realize that we have to fund it," he said.
Massie said they've made their best case to legislators.
"Obviously, we feel like the needs are there. There probably won't be the money there to fund those needs," he said. "But all we can do is ask and point out what we need."
Mack Alford has a $12 million budget for this fiscal year.
Legislators will know more about the funding situation when they start discussing the budget later in the session, Brecheen said.
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