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Correction needed for correctional officers


Sean Wallace March 27th, 2013

Are you willing to supervise as many as 200 inmates by yourself? To assess and react appropriately to extremely violent situations such as rapes, suicides and stabbings? To work with inmates who have communicable diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis or hepatitis?

If you answered yes to all of these application questions, you may qualify to become a correctional officer for the state of Oklahoma. For your valuable service, the state will pay you $11.83 an hour to start, less than most of your local convenience store clerks and less than any other state corrections officer in the country, save perhaps Mississippi.

The employees of the Department of Corrections (DOC) deserve a pay raise. Thirty percent of them qualify for food stamps, and 85 percent qualify for the federal free and reduced school lunch program.

These correctional officers, probation and parole officers, case managers, and others protect us from the most dangerous of our convicted criminals. A recent study found that 31 percent of correctional officers in the U.S. suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is 20 percent higher than Iraq War veterans. These men and women deal with issues daily that most of us cannot even imagine.

Yet they have not had a pay increase since 2006, when all state employees were last given a raise. In fact, they actually had their pay cut when they endured 11 furlough days in fiscal year 2011, costing the average employee $1,500.

But the low salaries are not the only reason our corrections employees’ morale is at its lowest point in history. Low staffing levels, constant mandatory overtime and the resulting stress are driving our best employees away. Five years ago, there were more than 2,000 correctional officers on the job. Today, there are about 1,600. During this decline, the state’s prison population has soared at an unsustainable rate.

Officers at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the state’s only maximum-security prison, must work four 16-hour double shifts per week because of the staff shortage. The average probation and parole officer is required to make monthly contact with a caseload of 150 offenders or more. Staff is at a breaking point.

It is time for state leadership to recognize that our corrections employees provide an invaluable service to Oklahoma and deserve their respect and support. We know legislators have the money this year to help.

Employees who put in the kind of hours and hard work that DOC employees do should not qualify for food stamps and should not depend on the federal government to provide their children’s school lunches.

The Legislature cannot continue to finance a prison system on the backs of its employees. With the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, it is time for lawmakers to stop increasing our prison population and allow DOC to properly manage its staff, offenders and facilities, making us all a lot safer.

The brave men and women of the department deserve better. They deserve a raise.


Wallace is executive director of the 1,500-member Oklahoma Corrections Professionals.

 
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