McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 18, 2013

Editorial:

Tabled bill gives OSP employees "short end of the stick"

By Kandra Wells
Editor

McALESTER — It looks as though the state’s prison employees are getting the short end of the stick — again.

Tuesday, the House tabled a bill that would have given all state prison workers a 5 percent pay hike. Starting pay for correctional officers would have gone to $14 per hour, up from a staggering-low of $11.83.

With three guards from the state’s highest-security prison defending themselves against criminal charges related to a prison death — and another three workers fired — under-staffing at Oklahoma State Penitentiary and other prisons around the state has reached critical levels. Year after year, the legislature has put funding for corrections on the back burner behind other, albeit also well-deserving, state workers and industries: education, infrastructure, and this time, apparently, highway troopers.

Tuesday’s action by the state legislature’s House Calendar Committee effectively stalls the bill by Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Darcoma. Aside from a 5-percent pay hike for all prison workers, and the boost in starting pay for correctional officers from $11.83 per hour to $14 per hour, in all the bill would have cost about $12.2 million annually.

It is the top request by the Department of Corrections for additional funding.

The new Calendar Committee at the capitol is the final stop before bills are presented in the floor for consideration. Without the committee’s approval, a bill cannot move forward, much less garner approval to move over to the other side of the legislature, in this case the Oklahoma Senate.

An Associated Press story about the move  notes Hickman had another bill the committee did approve: an increase in pay for Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers.

The short shrift for prison workers comes as the state seeks to put three of its own ex-corrections officers behind bars in the outrageous death of an inmate at OSP last summer. Julius J. Parker, 26, was serving 15 years for a Tulsa County armed robbery when he started a fire in his cell at OSP.

He died hours later of complications from smoke inhalation.

Six OSP workers were fired after Parker died, and three are charged with manslaughter in his death. At least two workers were fired because they allegedly signed off on fire alarm inspection reports.

Let’s get something straight. If the state is going to prosecute criminals and send them to the state pen, it needs to fund corrections on par with other industries in the state. Corrections is probably the only government job in Oklahoma where workers get up every day to earn a living in a hostile and physically dangerous working environment.

Parker’s death points to a neglect the state has paid corrections, which now faces myriad problems. There are guards working mandatory double shifts, overcrowding and other issues.

When budget-making time comes around, corrections should get its fair share. A prison worker making $11.83 an hour to guard the public from the most dangerous criminals in the state should be able to trust his legislators — those we elect — to have his back.

We urge our legislators and others around the state to do the right thing and give corrections officials enough money to do the job they are asked to do, and not on the shoestring budget now choking our prison operations.

Contact Kandra Wells at kwells@mcalesternews.com .