At the end of an inmate council meeting at an Oklahoma prison, Jacob Watson was eager to talk about how encouraged he felt after seeing Department of Corrections director Steven Harpe on TV news the night before. Harpe was 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, News From The States. To Watson, the staff changes were a positive sign of a culture shift in the agency. Harpe told the television reporter the agency’s practice had been, 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 a 30-year prison sentence for murder at the prison since 2012. As Harpe, who had been the state’s chief operating officer, attempts to change the department's culture, he’s trying to give the 23,000 state inmates a greater voice in how the prisons operate.
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 such unit nationwide. While some have questioned changes since Harpe took over, inmates are celebrating his reforms. They say corrections officials are taking their concerns seriously and already making improvements. 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 to hear from the council of inmates elected by their peers.