Legislators greeted by protest groups

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- State corrections workers seeking better pay held up signs and placards demanding legislative action Monday as lawmakers returned to the State Capitol for the start of the 2001 Legislature.

Nearby, a small group of death penalty opponents stood behind a banner that read "Moratorium Now" as they urged lawmakers to support legislation that would impose a moratorium on Oklahoma's death penalty.

About 25 corrections workers huddled near the Capitol's south steps and hoisted signs stating "Vote Yea On Our Pay" and "Show Me The Money" as members of the House and Senate pulled into nearby parking lots and made their way inside the Capitol.

Gov. Frank Keating has proposed $3,000 annual pay raises for state correctional officers as well as pay increases for juvenile and veterans affairs workers.

But Brian Holden, a worker at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, said Keating's proposal is less than half of the 30 percent across-the-board pay hike corrections workers are seeking.

"He fell short," said Holden, who wore a hat and thick jacket to protect him from the morning chill.

"We're the 50th lowest paid group in the nation," said Shannon Crow, a retired Department of Human Services worker.

Corrections worker Charles Palmer said the low pay has created numerous vacancies at state prisons that are being filled with poorly trained replacements.

"Right now, at this point, we can't even operate our facilities," Palmer said.

"We've got a lot of stress being overworked and stressed out.

It's a mess," said Brian Palmer, a worker at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.

"It's protection of the public," said Billy Moore, an instructor at the Gene Stipe Correctional Training Facility at Wilburton.

"We run one of the best training departments in the nation,"

Moore said. "Yet our pay rate doesn't meet that training."

Death penalty opponents said they are urging lawmakers to become co-authors of a bill that would impose a moratorium on use of Oklahoma's death penalty. A total of eight Oklahoma death row inmates have been executed since the beginning of the year.

"We're trying to find common ground with people who believe in the death penalty," said Bill Martin, a retired professor of religion at Oklahoma City University.

State Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City, has introduced legislation that would impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

Toure's bill has five co-authors, but Nathaniel Batchelder of the Peace House said death penalty opponents are working to get more.

Martin said a moratorium needs to be imposed and lawmakers need to give the Pardon and Parole Board more flexibility in commuting death sentences.

"The system is not working," Martin said.