OKLAHOMA made it through the past two broiling summers without a major prison brawl — remarkable, really, considering the state's lockups are packed with groups that don't like each other, in facilities that aren't fully air conditioned.
And, with little to stop inmates if they do decide to rumble.
Only three-fifths of the state's correctional officer positions are filled. Keeping even that many men and women on the job is difficult because the pay is bad. The starting wage for a prison guard is $11.83 per hour, lower than what the same job pays in neighboring states and certainly below what's available in local oil field jobs.
It looked for a while during this legislative session that additional funding might be on the way to bump starting pay and provide raises for those now on the job. But the brakes were applied to that legislation after a squabble between the governor's office and the head of the Department of Corrections over DOC revolving funds.
Gov. Mary Fallin contended the DOC was seeking to hide $22 million in the three funds. DOC Director Justin Jones said that this wasn't the case. Later, documents showed that the amount held in two of the funds was much greater than what the DOC had reported to the governor for her budgeting purposes.
The proposed $7.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2014 included no additional funding for corrections. If that wasn't stinging enough, the budget also steered $7 million to the House, Senate and Legislative Service bureau, including $5 million to remodel unused Capitol offices.
Jones, who has been DOC director since 2005 and whose career with the agency spans 37 years, insists his management of the budget is sound and responsible. The governor's office isn't so sure. Fallin wants improvements in how funds are spent and reported. Both sides make compelling arguments.
Feuds between state leaders and the corrections agency aren't new. Several years ago, lawmakers slashed the budget of an agency that provided analyses of how corrections-related policy affected Oklahoma's criminal justice system. The data didn't sit well with those in charge, so they shot the messenger.
But doing so didn't change the data, which showed the state's prison population ever on the rise as the result of tough-on-crime laws approved by the Legislature through the years. Similarly, this flap doesn't change the fact that Oklahoma's prisons are understaffed.
Those caught in the middle are the correctional officers, many of whom visited the Capitol last week to ask for help. They detailed the mandatory 12-hour shifts in place at several prisons, needed in order to cover for gaps in staffing. Required double-shifts and mandatory overtime are not uncommon. “We're worn out,” said Sgt. David Edelman, a guard at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.
Edelman predicted officers and inmates would eventually get killed in a flare-up. “By the end of the summer, DOC is going to be at a complete breaking point,” he said. “It will happen.”
In the works is a study comparing state employees' pay and benefits to the private sector and other states, with a goal of weighing the possibility of pay raises next year. Meantime, prison guards would welcome prayers for a cool August.