- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma Department of Corrections became the first state agency Tuesday to join a hiring program for U.S. Army active duty personnel and veterans.

But Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said it’s uncertain how effective the agency’s low starting salaries will be in recruiting soldiers to help fill a shortage of correctional officers in state prisons.

“That’s going to be a real challenge,” Allbaugh told The Associated Press following a formal ceremony at the state Capitol to introduce the program known as the Partnership for Youth Access.

Allbaugh said correctional officers in the state start as cadets at $12.78 per hour - lower than other states in the region.

“It’s pretty pitiful. It’s a big issue,” Allbaugh said. He said many other employers offer comparable wages for jobs that do not involve the risks that correctional workers face.

“During an eight-hour shift their life is not on the line,” he said.

Allbaugh said increasing the salaries of Oklahoma’s correctional and probation workers will be a top legislative priority for his agency in the 2017 Oklahoma Legislature that convenes in February.

The PaYS hiring program provides soldiers, recruits and members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps a guaranteed interview for potential employment during their time in the Army and after discharging. Although 47 private-sector Oklahoma businesses are program partners, the Corrections Department is the first state agency to use it.

Allbaugh said soldiers are taught leadership and discipline during their service, qualities correctional officers need “to adapt to adverse situations at a moment’s notice.”

“We’re underemployed in correctional officers. We’re underemployed in probational officers. Getting more and more of these individuals into those classifications will be critical to ensure our state’s safety,” Allbaugh said. A total of 29,000 inmates are currently incarcerated in state-operated and private prisons in Oklahoma, and another 31,000 people are on probation or parole, he said.

Gov. Mary Fallin said 30 percent of Oklahoma’s correctional officer positions are vacant and that having an opportunity to employ military personnel will be a way of getting more correctional officers into state prisons.

“We want to make sure that our Department of Corrections employees are safe, that our public is safe,” Fallin said. “We also have an obligation to keep our inmates safe.

“We want to do everything we can to help our veterans be very successful,” the governor said.

Lt. Col. Jim Hill, commander of the Army recruiting command in Oklahoma City, said the program will strengthen the Army’s relationship with the state.

“Being part of the PaYS program will allow this agency to become stronger with the quality and the qualified individuals who come out of the U.S. Army,” Hill said.

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