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Oklahoma needs more prison beds, corrections director says

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: January 24, 2013 at 10:32 pm •  Published: January 25, 2013
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About $3.8 million of the 2013 fiscal year supplemental appropriation would pay for a growth in offenders and $2 million would pay for an increase in the daily rate for private prisons to hold state inmates, which was included in a measure that passed on the last day of last year's session. During the state's economic downturn, private prisons reduced their rates; the measure last year restored the rate to the previous level. Another $583,200 would pay for required substance abuse treatment services for certain offenders, he said.

The prison system received $463.7 million this fiscal year. The additional $66.7 million would put the agency's budget at $530 million.

It's estimated lawmakers will have about $170 million in additional money this year to put together a budget of nearly $7 billion.

Need for higher pay

About $12.2 million of the funding request for the 2014 fiscal year is to increase employee pay to combat higher wages and better hours offered by private employers, Jones said. Only 62 percent of the agency's 5,800 authorized correctional officer positions are filled.

“I'm losing officers every day,” Jones said.

Prisoners at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply have walked away because of low staffing levels, he said. The minimum-security prison, which has no fence around it, has 44 officers to watch about 1,100 inmates. Prisoners wait for the guards to be distracted, and make the 30-yard walk to a nearby highway.

Jones is seeking a 5 percent raise for employees and an increase in starting pay for correctional officers from $11.83 to $14 an hour. Oklahoma's pay for correctional officers is the lowest in the region, Jones said. Starting pay for correctional officers is $12.98 an hour in Kansas, $13.38 an hour in Texas and $18.88 an hour in Colorado.

About 30 percent of correctional workers in Oklahoma qualify for food stamps, and about 85 percent of the staff qualifies for school lunch programs, Jones said.

Correctional officers can increase their pay if they attain the rank of corporal, which can take 18 months, but after that there is no pay increase. As a result, officers 18 months on the job can be making as much as officers with several years' experience.

The last pay increase most correctional officers received was an across-the-board raise for all state employees in October 2006, Jones said.