Playing politics with prison 

And now, only weeks after session adjourned, the governor has forced out our director, Justin Jones, who served the state and the DOC for 36 years.

The reason: He resisted efforts to privatize the state’s prison system. Private prison corporations have deep pockets, and the governor and Republican leadership are only so willing to take their money.

Most public corrections employees fight hard to stay out of poverty, even though they work full-time and signifi cant overtime. Many are now working five 12-hour shifts a week because of insufficient staffing.

The average salary for a state corrections officer is $29,000. Yet, with around $200 million in new revenue to spend this session, the governor thwarted efforts for a desperately needed raise and instead proposed another pay study to compare public- and private-sector wages.

The pay study alone wasn’t enough political cover to deny the raise. They also created an utterly false and misleading story about the agency “hiding money” in “undisclosed accounts” and the same week threw in a tabloid story about the director’s personal life for good measure. Clearly, the writing was on the wall that state leaders wanted the director out.

Playing political games with the state prison system is a serious risk. Because the wages of DOC employees are so low, we struggle to keep anyone on the job, much less recruit anyone. This is dangerous because our prisons are full and we continue to imprison Oklahomans at a higher rate than just about anywhere in the world.There were large disturbances involving dozens of inmates at three institutions in recent months. One officer caught in a melee at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center in March admitted that the inmates beating him could have killed him if they’d so chosen. He’s thankful they didn’t, and legislators should be, too.

More and more of the money that previously went to the DOC to run state facilities is now directed to be given to private prisons, which have minimal oversight and don’t save the state any money. An agency-requested bill to require private prisons to disclose information — like details of what happened at last year’s riot in Sayre — never managed to get out of the Senate.

Profiting from the incarceration of our citizens is morally wrong and in some states isn’t even legal. Oklahoma has more than 5,000 inmates in private facilities, a number that will grow if this administration has its way.

There is a clear and present danger to the state’s corrections employees, and it’s not just from the inmates. It’s the private prisons and their benefactors at the Oklahoma Capitol.

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

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the
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