Union: Okla. Prison Workers Stretched Too Thin

Monday, October 18th 2010, 10:48 pm
By: News On 6

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma -- Forcing Oklahoma's prison workers to take an unpaid day off each month while overseeing the state's most dangerous population is leading to a "public safety nightmare," the head of the state workers union said Monday.

Sterling Zearley, who heads the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, asked legislative leaders for $9 million in supplemental funding before June 30 to stop the furloughs, which he said would increase to two or three days each month by March.

"These employees put their lives on the line daily and are now asked to do so with fewer employees and more inmates than ever before," Zearley said at a news conference at the state Capitol, surrounded by about a dozen state prison workers.

The Department of Corrections implemented the agency-wide furloughs at the start of the fiscal year in July after its already-reduced budget was slashed another 3 percent by lawmakers grappling with a massive budget shortfall.

Incoming House Speaker Kris Steele said public safety will be one of his top priorities, but he declined to commit Monday to additional funding this year.

"Early predictions indicate we will face a very large budget shortfall in the 2011 legislative session that will require tough choices," Steele, R-Shawnee, said in a statement. "We are going to do the best we can given the resources we have available."

Oklahoma's inmate population increased by more than 700 over the last year, while the DOC is operating at about 69 percent of its authorized level for correctional officers, Zearley said. The department recently hit 99 percent inmate capacity and currently houses about 26,000 offenders.

Chad Reid, a single father who oversees 100 maximum-security inmates by himself at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, said he recently had to take out a payday loan to pay for a doctor

when his 7-year-old son became sick.

"The furloughs are making it hard on me and my son," Reid said. "They're taking money out of our pocket."

Randy Lopez, a sergeant at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, said officers there work 16-hour shifts and the best young recruits rarely stay long.

"We're doing long hours around the most dangerous inmates in the state," Lopez said.