“Public Safety is Not Negotiable”

Taking advantage of the annual OPEA DOC lobby day and citing the state’s nearly $200 million dollar shortfall, Oklahoma senators Jim Wilson, Richard Leblance, Connie Johnson and Kenneth Corn held a press conference to call for full funding of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections.

“Now is the time, the best year for the foreseeable future, to fund our Corrections Department,” said Wilson (D-Tahlequah). “The way that previous legislators have funded DOC is a very poor management model.”

Wilson added that his experience on the state’s Sentencing Commission gave him an added insight into the situation.

“We have been playing cat and mouse with our corrections department for too long,” he said, “and that’s what we are in the position we are today.”

Wilson said that, even with the state’s budget shortfall, it is time to fund DOC.

“We are facing such an emergency that perhaps we should look into tapping the state’s ‘Rainy Day’ fund to help solve this crisis,” he said.

Next up was Senator Richard Leblance (D-McAlester) who has filed legislation to help with the DOC infrastructure problem.

“I have filed legislation to add some 3,818 beds to our existing facilities,” he said. “To be funded by a $309 million, 25 year bond issue.”

“We have to put real dollars behind our public safety concerns,” he said.

Last speaker for the legislators was Sen. Kenneth Corn (D-Poteau).

“I hate to say ‘I told you so,’” Corn said. “But last year I warned our legislature that DOC was in a crisis state with no end in sight.”

Corn said that what he called a “band aid” approach was not the proper way to maintain public safety.

“Every year the Department of Corrections has to come back to us for supplemental funding,” he said. “We need to fully fund this agency now for the safety of our citizens.”

Senator Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) also attended the press conference.

After the senators finished their comments, OPEA members took the microphone, beginning with OPEA member Mike Rogers

“We did not come here today as Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “We came here as Oklahomans and employees of the Department of Corrections to ask the legislature to do the right thing.”

Rogers said that the OPEA platform position of a $2,700 pay raise is needed.

“Everything is skyrocketing,” he said. “Food and fuel are going up every day and state employees haven’t seen a decent pay raise in a long time.”

Diana Givens works a medical ward at the Joseph Harp correctional facility.

“We have four staff for 262 inmates who need medical supervision,” she said. “We are lucky if two officers are assigned to us.”
OPEA Board member William Weldon said that poor salaries are causing major turnover at his facility Lexington.

“Even though we are near the metro area we are not able to recruit new officers,” he said. “We have reached the saturation point.”

Finishing up the press conference was OPEA member Dave Ramsey who gave a sobering statistic.

“There were six inmate homicides in the Oklahoma prison system last year,” he said. “Which ties us with California, a state that has seven times the inmates we do.”

At the press conference’s conclusion, Senator Wilson made a startling revelation.

“If I was a correctional officer, I would sue the state of Oklahoma for not giving me adequate working conditions,” he said.

State Senator Mike Johnson (R-Kingfisher), co chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed that DOC needs funding.

“Fully funding the Department of Corrections will remain a top budget priority in the 2008 legislative session despite the lower revenue projections.”

Johnson also spoke for his party in the Senate.

“A tighter budget means that spending proposals must be prioritized. Senate Republicans are committed to fully funding DOC now and in the future. Protecting the public safety must be priority one for government even in a tight budget year.”

OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley said that the press conference communicated the thoughts of the association’s membership.

“DOC is asking for $580 million this year to keep them afloat,” he said. “OPEA is planning to support their request throughout the legislative session.”

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