An inmate is escorted by two officers in H Unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester in 2011. The Oklahoman file

Some 432 state Corrections Department workers who work directly with inmates didn’t get a pay raise this year, despite legislation meant to do just that.

The Legislature funded a $2-an-hour pay bump effective July 1, but those who don’t work “behind the fence” were left out. That means chaplains, administrative assistants and deputy wardens — among others — didn’t get their raise.

The pay hike cost the state $11 million. Giving the raises to the hundreds of all the corrections workers who deserved it will take another $1.4 million. State leaders are telling the Corrections Department to figure out how to get it done without any additional money this year.

The fact that the Legislature didn’t have the information it needed to make a proper appropriation suggests confusion in the top ranks at the Department of Corrections during a leadership transition or, at the very least, a failure to communicate effectively.

But we also see a deeper problem at work that underlies many other issues that recur in the corrections department. Put plainly, Oklahoma’s prison system is not sustainable.

We have too many prisoners in facilities that are too old and located in places where the state wouldn’t be able to attract enough employees, even if it were offering competitive wages, which it isn’t.

We’ve got too many prisoners, too little money, too few guards and too few alternatives. As a result, state government doesn’t have the money it needs for education, roads and health; meanwhile, we’re destroying families, hamstringing the state’s work force and having no positive impact on crime.

The solution is obvious: fewer prisoners.

The state can’t afford its world-leading rate of incarceration, which is driven by a criminal justice system that emphasizes retribution not rehabilitation. Fix that problem, and many other issues fall into place.

If we can’t even figure out how many people we have working with the inmates so that we can engineer a pay raise, we might have a management problem. But the real management problem is we’re trying to lock up too many people.


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