BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Learning where our real fortune lies is often a painful experience. A fair amount of truth exists in the taglines of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ the 2000 movie about three stumblebum convicts who escape from a penitentiary in a southern state in the 1930’s.
The storyline, based loosely on Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ where the three main characters slip away from a chain gang and meet a series of characters whose virtues and vices influence, interact and mostly interfere with their quest. Seers, Cyclops and Sirens come in the form of blind men, corrupt politicians and…plain old Sirens, in the classical sense.
Over the course of the script, the three men learn lessons of life and discover truths about their companions, but more importantly about themselves. The characters set out with a plan, but did not have a clue. Consequently, the lesson learned by the main character, Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney, was that ‘Sometimes you have to lose your way to get back home’.
This is a lesson that we must always appreciate. Whether our personal tendencies lean toward one political party or the other, it is imperative that our plans be tempered with the reality of both fiscal restraint and compassion toward the human condition.
Having a plan without a clue may result in austerity through the indiscriminate slashing of benefits that are often the only means of support for a single mother or eldery retiree. Having a plan without a clue may result in the unbridled expansion of government programs in the name of compassion.
Having a plan without a clue is always dangerous, always destructive and never responsible.
Shouldn’t an appreciation of reality lead us to be committed to allowing full time employees of the State of Oklahoma to earn enough income to raise a family and live above the poverty level? One would think so, but facts disclose an embarrassing truth.
Over 30% of state corrections officers qualify for food stamps and 85% qualify for the federal free and reduced school lunch program. Attempts were blocked this legislative session to provide even a meager salary increase to correctional officers, who had not received a pay increase since 2006 and who also endured 11 furlough days in Fiscal Year 2011.
Where does that leave employee morale? If these officers were not serving a key government function, then it might not be reprehensible to demand that they work 40 or more hours per week for substandard wages and then curse them as welfare recipients who are a bane on our society.
This past week marked the 40th anniversary of the McAlester Prison Riot. In 1973, before Federal Judge Luther Eubanks intervened and brought the prison system into the 20th Century, the Oklahoma prison system was not dissimilar to the chain gangs shown in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. Oklahoma’s ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality had resulted in massive prison overcrowding. Correctional officers were poorly paid and staffing was seriously inadequate.
Today, once again, most Oklahoma prisons are overcrowded. System wide, beds are 99% full with hundreds of state inmates being held in county jails because there is no room in the state’s prison system. Since 2008 staffing had decreased from over 2,000 to only 1588 while the prison population has ballooned to 25,138. During this period of time there has been a 66% increase in on-the-job injuries of DOC employees.
Today’s starting pay of $11.83 per hour equates to $24,605 per year and taking inflation into account, is less than what new officers made in 1973. Prison officials and employees express grave concern about the safety of officers and inmates.
It gets darker. Oklahoma continues to incarcerate at the fourth highest rate in the nation, behind only Lousiana, Mississippi and Alabama, three states that we always seem to strive to emulate. We hold the absolute number one slot in the nation for the incarceration of women.
It is no wonder the oft repeated remark of Ulysses Everett McGill, George Clooney’s character, “We’re in a tight spot” seems to resonate so clearly. Unfortunately, it is a tight spot that neither another study, knee jerk emotion nor food stamps will alleviate.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. I look forward to hearing from you at David.Perryman@okhouse.gov or 405-557-7401.