Culture change at Oklahoma corrections department aims to give inmates a voice
New offender advocacy unit making changes based on inmate feedback
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Offender Advocacy Chief Nicole Flemming speaks to inmates at Joseph Harp Correctional Center on Oct. 13 in Lexington. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)
LEXINGTON — At the end of a recent inmate council meeting at a state prison, Jacob Watson was eager to talk about how encouraged he felt after seeing the Department of Corrections director on local TV news the night before.
Director Steven Harpe was on screen defending his decision to fire some prison leaders and executive staff, including the former warden at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, which prompted threats of wrongful termination lawsuits from nine former employees.
To Watson, the staff changes were a positive sign of an ongoing culture shift within the agency. Harpe told the television reporter the agency’s practice before was “if you screw up, you move up.”
“I can’t believe he said that. It’s true, but I can’t believe he said that,” said Watson, who has been serving his 30-year prison sentence for murder at Joseph Harp since 2012.
As Harpe, a Stitt appointee who used to serve as the state’s chief operating officer, attempts to change the culture at the Department of Corrections, he’s trying to give the roughly 23,000 inmates in state custody a greater voice in how the prisons operate.
To that end, he tapped Nicole Flemming to lead a new offender advocacy unit tasked with improving the prison environment and inmate well-being by listening to candid feedback from prisoners across the state. The agency says it’s the first unit of its kind nationwide.
While some have questioned changes at the agency since the new director took over, inmates are celebrating Harpe’s reforms. They say corrections officials are taking their concerns seriously and already making improvements as a result.
Flemming, who has worked at the department since 2012 as a community outreach coordinator and crisis negotiator, makes both unannounced and planned visits to Oklahoma’s 23 prisons in an effort to give inmates a high-ranking sounding board to voice their concerns and brainstorm solutions.
That’s what led her to Joseph Harp on a recent Friday to hear from the council of inmates elected by their peers.
“We have leadership that’s changing culture from the employee perspective, but I’m also coming at it from the other end and changing culture from where the residents sit,” Flemming said.
Changing culture in Oklahoma’s prisons
Although some inmates have been apprehensive about the new initiative, their skepticism has dissipated as they start seeing results, she said.
At the council meeting, Flemming talked about new surveys that will be sent to all inmates on their DOC-provided tablets every six months. The surveys will allow inmates to anonymously rate all parts of their prison, including food service, the visitation process, access to legal services, various programs, medical treatment and mental health services.
Members of the inmate councils will then help dive into the survey results, she said.
“They have a voice to tell me why, and not just why, but to bring solutions to the table,” Flemming said. “Then, I can take that information to the executive team and say, ‘OK, here’s where we’re lacking at Joseph Harp.’”
Luke Sinclair, interim mayor of the inmate council at Joseph Harp, said he appreciates Flemming’s work.
Sinclair said he’s long known the prison system won’t be well run unless inmates get a say in the operations. He’s been incarcerated at Joseph Harp for almost two decades since pleading guilty in 2004 to first-degree murder.
“There is no reform that can take place that doesn’t involve us,” he said.
Prison changes in the works
Corrections officials already are working on some changes as a result of the feedback Flemming has received.
The agency plans to nearly double pay for most inmates, who work various jobs within the prison. Hourly pay will increase from 54 cents to $1. Additional pay hikes will be implemented based on an inmate’s behavioral status, which is determined by their time served, conduct, hygiene, participation in programs and self-sufficiency, Flemming said.
Flemming said inmates at every facility complained the current pay was so low they couldn’t afford to call their loved ones or purchase items from the commissary.
“That was one of the biggest things I kept hearing,” she said.
The corrections department also is seeking a new vendor to operate the prison commissaries because of complaints about the prices and limited availability of certain items.
Flemming said female inmates weren’t able to purchase women’s deodorant and, in some cases, the commissaries didn’t offer ethnic hair products.
Ultimately, Flemming said her goal is to reduce recidivism and victimization.
“Most people who are incarcerated were victims of a crime at some point in their life and it was a result of unresolved trauma,” she said. “But if we can pour into those same people and instill in them value and give them resources and they get out and are successful, we are reducing victimization.”
New program a positive start
Jennifer Williams, project manager for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said the new unit is a positive start. Williams previously worked at the corrections department as a manager supervising reentry efforts and other programs at 12 facilities.
While all of the prisons have long had inmate councils that shared prisoner feedback or issues with the wardens, there was never an attempt to advocate for inmates on a statewide basis. There was also no one to ensure prison officials were responding to inmate feedback, she said.
“There wasn’t a lot of accountability with the inmate councils, and I think that’s where the offender advocacy unit can really step in,” Williams said.
Williams said she hopes the agency provides additional manpower for the four-person unit. Having one offender advocate at each prison would be a huge service to the inmates, she said.
Joseph Harp inmate Michael Magness said he’s hopeful. He believes Harpe is trying to root out the “good ol’ boy system” and change the culture within the Department of Corrections.
Magness, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a first-degree murder conviction, said he has been encouraged after hearing Harpe talk to corrections staff.
“One of the things I really like about this director and this warden is they are treating this more as a community than a warehouse,” he said. “My only hope is that should the political winds change in three years, the things that this director has affected and improved stay the same.”
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