Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh (center), and the Board of Corrections meeting at the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Sept. 26, 2017. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

TAFT — The Oklahoma Board of Corrections on Tuesday approved a budget request of more than $1.5 billion to fund employee pay raises, two new prisons and a host of other improvements at state prison facilities.

Approval of the department’s requested fiscal year 2019 budget, which is more than a billion dollars higher than the $485 million appropriated by the Legislature for this fiscal year, comes as Gov. Mary Fallin’s office prepares to call a second special Legislative session to fill this fiscal year’s budget hole.

Tuesday’s vote by the board marks the second year in a row the department has requested a budget of more than a billion dollars.

“It sounds like a lot of money because it is a lot of money,” said Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh. “The days of bailing wire and pliers are over. We have to fund this agency properly. This budget represents exactly what our needs are.”

The top priority listed in the request document is an additional $10.1 million for employee salary increases.

Allbaugh said the department has had a difficult time attracting and retaining employees, in large part because of the low salary correctional officers receive, $12.78 per hour beginning pay.

Allbaugh pointed to a situation at North Fork Correctional Facility as an example of the department’s staffing woes. A 120-bed unit at North Fork, which is a private prison facility owned by CoreCivic but staffed and operated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections through a lease agreement, is not being occupied with prisoners currently because there is not enough correctional officers to staff the unit, Allbaugh said.

With retirements and employees leaving for better paying positions outside DOC “we’re losing as much staff on a daily basis as we’re gaining,” Allbaugh said. “I don’t fault anybody for going to the oil patch, it’s picking up, but when we’re surrounded by states that are (paying) three and half bucks an hour more than what we pay our correctional officer to start out, that says a lot.”

The department’s current offender management system is also woefully out of date, Allbaugh said. The software that the system is on is 32 years old, and release dates are often figured out by using pencil and paper, sometimes resulting in errant releases of prisoners, he said.

“We’re operating in the same way, with our classification and population (system), as if we’re still a territory in the late 1880s, 1890s. Same system,” Allbaugh said.

Other prisoner records, such as the closed records of prisoners who are no longer under DOC custody, are also paper-based, increasing the likelihood that the records could be lost, damaged or destroyed.

“It’s just one of many messes we have at our agency,” Allbaugh said. “It’s unforgivable, it’s unacceptable, and it’s not what Oklahomans deserve, quite frankly.”

The biggest ticket items in the budget request are two new medium-security facilities — one for male prisoners and the other for females in order to address prison overcrowding, Allbaugh said. The request for those two facilities is more than $813 million.

The state has been in talks with the private prison company CoreCivic about possibly leasing the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, in a deal that would likely be similar to the department’s lease of the North Fork facility, Allbaugh said. Barring the two new facilities being built, that possibility is still on the table, Allbaugh said.

Asked about the likelihood of the Legislature approving such a budget request, Allbaugh said “Our needs are our needs. It’s up to our elected officials to identify core functions of government and find a way to fund them. That is their job and responsibility.”

Allbaugh also alluded to a comment made by Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, during the recent special legislative session, in which Bennett said “The agencies telling our citizens they’re going to cut their services to the most vulnerable. That’s terrorism. We should not be negotiating with terrorists, period. These agencies are using our citizens as pawns. It’s not right and somebody needs to stop them, and that’s where we come in.”

Though his comment drew the ire of Fallin, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and others, Bennett has not backed down from the statement.

“Since I’m considered a terrorist and a liar, citizens of Oklahoma should ask their legislators ‘how are we to do our job?’ whether it’s prisons, health , mental health, education secondary or higher, it doesn’t matter,” Allbaugh said. “We need to start raising the bar instead of lowering the bar in our state.”

The budget request consists of the following budget increases:

  • Salary increases — $10,153,457
  • Immediate facility needs — $107,262,871
  • Programs — $3,021,616
  • Information technology — $6,670,432
  • Training — $1,500,000
  • Probation and parole — $2,027,130
  • Inmate health care — $88,496,783
  • Fleet vehicles — $$5,000,000
  • Community sentencing — $995,924
  • New medium security prisons — $813,294,552
  • Increased food/clothing costs — $3,200,000
  • Classification/records/medical security units — $1,880,491
  • Audit and compliance — $67,300

Total requested appropriation increase — $1,043,570,556

FY 2018 appropriation — $485,011,555

Total FY 2019 appropriation request — $1,528,582,111