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Oklahoma prison workers need pay increase, legislative panel told

Prisons are having difficulty finding employees and workers are leaving for jobs where they can receive better pay and working conditions, corrections officials say.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: October 12, 2012
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The cost would be $12.2 million; legislators this year appropriated $463.7 million of the $6.8 billion budget to the Corrections Department.

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, Hickman said.

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

Janice Melton, warden of the Charles E. “Bill” Johnson Correctional Center at Alva, said it has been difficult to recruit and retain workers the past couple years because of the increase in natural gas and oil activity. Correctional officers can double and sometimes triple their salaries by taking an oil-field job, she 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. Officers 18 months on the job can be making as much as officers with several years' experience, Martin said.

State employees have not had an across-the-board raise since October 2006.

Melton said correctional officers and workers realize the state went through revenue shortfalls, but the lack of a pay raise for six years does cause morale problems.

“They want to feel they're valued for what they do,” she said.

Martin said correctional officers at Conner recently switched to 12-hour shifts with a mandatory 60-hour workweek.

The fatigue and stress of the job is as much a factor as low pay for officers who quit to work elsewhere, he said. He has 85 correctional officers; his prison is funded for 102.

“A guy can go over and be a security officer at a casino for $14.50 an hour, and I'm paying 11,” Martin said. “You go to a casino, and it's a lot less stressful.”