By James Beaty
McAlester’s two state representatives have a strong stance on the future of Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester — and they both think the state legislature and leadership should do better today for the state’s correctional officers and other Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees.
District 17 state Rep. Dr. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, and District 18 state Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, both recalled how they first heard about the 1973 riot and what they believe can be done to help DOC employees today.
At the time of the riot, Renegar was attending college at Oklahoma State University.
Still, something that happened there made a deep impression on him.
“I was a sophomore in vet school,” Renegar said.
“We were in class and the dean of the class pulled one of the students out,” Renegar recalled.
The student was David Zoltner, a member of the Oklahoma National Guard.
“He said he was activated for an emergency,” Renegar said — that emergency being the 1973 riot at OSP, when Oklahoma National Guard troops were rushed to the scene to help make sure rampaging inmates didn’t break out of the prison.
Renegar, who had attended high school in Tahlequah and had not yet moved to McAlester, said he’s never forgotten that moment. It immediately brought home the significance of the riot to see a fellow student called from class so the student could rush to McAlester and help contain the rioting inmates.
These days, Renegar serves as assistant minority leader at the State House of Representatives, where he has been a member of the House Committee on Public Safety during his entire tenure in the state legislature.
He’s critical of the state’s leadership as well as some of his fellow legislators for cutting back funding he said is needed by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Renegar said entry-level correctional offices at OSP and other facilities start off being paid “$11 and change” per hour.
“In Oklahoma City, the starting wage for a convenience store operator is $13.50,” said Renegar, referring again to an hourly wage.
He said that’s why the staffing level for correctional officers is only at 73 percent.
“They can’t get people to go to work at that low of a salary,” Renegar said.
He said he and some of his fellow legislators were ready to increase that amount during the last legislative session.
“We were going to start it at $15 an hour,” Renegar said. “But the governor said she’s not going to give anybody a raise.”
Renegar said he thinks the DOC is unfairly being set up for failure by some of the state’s leaders who refuse to provide the needed funds.
“I think this is a plan to go to private prisons — and the best way to get rid of something is to make it fail,” he said.
Renegar noted the current situation at OSP has resulted in correctional officers not being able to go home at the end of their shifts, unless another officer has arrived to take their place. As a result, correctional officers at OSP have had to work numerous double shifts.
“It’s not necessarily the Department of Corrections’ (fault),” Renegar said. He said there’s a tremendous presence at the state Capitol of those pushing for increased use of private prisons.
District 18 state Rep. Condit said he was a high school student in Lindsay, Okla., when the 1973 riot broke out, so he heard of it through news reports. He said his future wife, Karen, who lived in McAlester at the time, would later tell him how many McAlester residents were fearful that the rioting inmates might succeed in breaking out of the prison.
He too, was not pleased with what happened — or didn’t happen — during the last legislative session regarding pay raises for DOC employees.
“There’s no reason we could not have provided some kind of pay raise for DOC employees,” Condit said. Instead, the state opted to spend approximately $200,000 on a study to see if a pay raise is needed, he said.
Condit said there’s already been a study showing state employees need a pay raise.
It’s obvious that entry-level DOC officers should be paid more, according to Condit.
“It’s ridiculous that a DOC employee from a family of four qualifies for food stamps and reduced or free school lunches,” Condit said.
He also doesn’t give much credence to the numbers that purport to show private prisons can incarcerate prisoners at a lower cost than the state.
“I don’t think a private prison can incarcerate an individual for the same price the state can,” Condit said.
He said he bases that on several reasons.
“They say when an inmate goes to a private prison and becomes a problem they can send them back to the DOC,” he said.
Condit said he’s been told that when an inmate suffers a heart attack at a private prison, for example, that inmate can be sent back to the DOC as well. He planned on trying to check that out further this week.
Meanwhile, Condit was asked about concerns among some OSP personnel that the state might try to completely close the prison in the future and send all, or most, of its inmates to private prisons.
Condit said he definitely would not support any such effort.
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.