The Norman Transcript

May 11, 2013

Prison workers feel trapped in political spat

By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Prison workers across Oklahoma who were denied a raise in a $7.1 billion budget deal say they feel trapped in the crossfire of a political dispute between the governor and the state's prison director over how much money the agency has available in several revolving accounts.

When Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders recently announced a deal on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Department of Corrections received a stand-still budget of $463.7 million. No additional money was included to help the agency deal with an increasing number of inmates or pay for raises for prison guards who say they're reaching a breaking point.

"The whole revolving accounts story is merely a convenient excuse to give DOC nothing," said Sean Wallace, the executive director of the Oklahoma Correctional Professionals Association, who visited the Capitol last week with several officers to urge lawmakers to consider a pay hike. "We all know that Oklahoma incarcerates more people than nearly anywhere else in the world. Well, that distinction comes at a price."

Shortly before the budget deal was announced, Fallin wrote a sharply critical letter to the seven-member Board of Corrections suggesting the agency was hiding $22 million in "undisclosed" revolving funds, even though documents provided by the DOC show that state officials were repeatedly given notice of the accounts.

The agency's director, Justin Jones, said there was never any intent to hide how much money was in the accounts and that any discrepancy was the result of how much had already been allocated to pay for things like infrastructure repairs, private prison bed contracts or increasing inmate medical costs.

"I think there's a need for people to understand, in particular on infrastructure repair and medical bills and having to go out and lease private beds, those are all done out of this one particular revolving account," Jones told The Associated Press on Friday.

Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor still has concerns about fiscal management at DOC and how the agency has spent and kept track of taxpayer dollars.

"If the money given to DOC had been allocated more wisely and reported more accurately, it is possible the agency would not be in the position it is today," Weintz said in a statement. "The governor has asked board members to work diligently and aggressively to pursue fixes at DOC."

When asked recently if she had lost confidence in Jones' ability to lead the agency, Fallin responded: "I'm going to withhold judgment on that until we're able to get more information from our new appointees to the Department of Corrections Board."

Meanwhile, prison workers at several facilities are being forced to work mandatory 12-hour shifts, five days a week, while others are required to work double-shifts or mandatory overtime.

During a violent outbreak involving nearly 150 inmates a few months ago at a state prison in Lexington, only six officers were available to respond and several suffered injuries trying to break up the melee, said Sgt. David Edelman, a guard at the facility.

"Officers and inmates are going to die from these situations," Edelman said, his eyes filling with tears. "We're tired. We're worn out. By the end of the summer, DOC is going to be at a complete breaking point. It will happen."

The starting salary for a correctional officer in Oklahoma is $11.83 per hour. Fallin has said she wants to await the results of a broad-based study on compensation of state employees before agreeing to pay hikes for any state workers.

Jones, meanwhile, said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of using money from the agency's discretionary revolving account to give prison workers a one-time bonus of $1,000 during the upcoming fiscal year if it's something the board supports. The price tag on that would be about $3 million, Jones said.

"We certainly would confer with the board," Jones said. "Statutorily you don't have to have board authorization, but for something that would affect our budget or revolving accounts, we absolutely would have the board discuss it in an open meeting and get their consent to do that."

But Jones downplayed the suggestion from some legislators that money from the revolving accounts be used to fund pay raises that would then become a recurring expense for the agency.

"You'd have to be extremely careful how you did that because if you did permanent raises, you'd have to make sure that those raises would be sustainable and that it wouldn't affect your ability to respond to emergencies or keep repairing your infrastructure, replacing boilers and things of that sort," he said.

A bill earlier this session to increase the starting salary of prison guards from $11.83 per hour to $14 per hour and give all DOC employees a 5 percent pay hike was estimated to cost $12.2 million annually.