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May 12, 2013

Prison workers feel trapped in political spat

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.

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