Oklahoma correctional officers, most of whom are working double shifts or more and haven't had a pay raise in nearly seven years, are at the breaking point, an officer who has worked 14 years for the agency said Wednesday.
“Budget cuts have put so much pressure to do much more with much less year after year,” said Lt. Cecil Dooley, who works at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. “We cannot go any further without any help from the Legislature.
“We are working mandatory double shifts at nearly every facility. Some are working four double shifts per week. And even when it isn't mandatory, we have officers that feel that they're being threatened if they don't stay. Of course, officers enjoyed the overtime in their paychecks for a while, but now they just want to go home to their families and they can't get there.”
Terry Martin, warden of the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, said 80 corrections officers work at the facility. The prison is authorized to have 132. As a result, only one correctional officer is assigned to a unit that holds 160 offenders, he said.
More than half the 1,200 inmates at the medium-security prison are violent offenders.
“It is a very dangerous environment,” he said during a news conference called by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
House Democrats called on Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and GOP legislative leaders to abandon plans to cut the top rate of the state's personal income tax, which is the largest source of revenue for the legislatively appropriated budget of nearly $7 billion.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said the cost of both income tax-cutting proposals, when fully implemented, is about $120 million. That money instead should go to pay for $20 million in pay increases being sought by the Corrections Department and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Inman, flanked by several House Democrats, correctional officers and retired troopers, urged GOP legislative leader and the governor to pass a budget that would restore funding to 2008 levels for the two agencies.
“At this time, since we have seen the state budget over the last few years grow by $500 million, a $300 million increase last year and a $200 million increase this year over last year, it is now time to invest in the men and women who protect us, instead of giving the money back in tax cuts that at the end of the day will do little to help folks,” he said.
“In reality, by failing to fund corrections and public safety, cutting state revenues will actually do more harm than good.”
Fallin's press secretary, Aaron Cooper, said the governor believes lawmakers have enough growth revenue this year to fund core government services, such as public safety, education and transportation, while also providing an income-tax cut.
“The governor's office has asked the Office of Management and Enterprise Studies to conduct a state employee compensation study,” Cooper said. “The study, which is currently under way, will provide a more complete picture of the salary needs of all state employees, including those who work in the areas of public safety and corrections.”
Funding is sought
The House last week unanimously passed a bill that would provide a 16 percent raise for troopers.
The trooper raises would cost about $7.3 million. The patrol, which has 767 troopers, is authorized to have 925; meanwhile, 213 troopers are eligible to retire.
Corrections officials are seeking $12.2 million for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, to increase employee pay to combat higher wages and better hours offered by private employers. Only 62 percent of the agency's 5,800 authorized correctional officer positions are filled.
The money would be a 5 percent raise for employees and an increase in starting pay for correctional officers from $11.83 to $14 an hour. About 30 percent of correctional workers in Oklahoma qualify for food stamps, and about 85 percent of the staff qualifies for their children to participate in school lunch programs.
“We're asking these workers to live near poverty,” said Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester.