The warden at El Dorado Correctional Facility – which is experiencing staffing shortages and inmate unrest – left because the state agency in charge decided new leadership was needed.
"Sometimes just as you switch the coach of a sporting team, we felt it was in the best interest of the El Dorado facility," Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said Thursday.
James Heimgartner left his position as warden abruptly last week. The Kansas Department of Corrections said he will help oversee training of corrections officers.
Norwood said the change came after much discussion and was also in Heimgartner’s interest as he progresses in his career. He added that Heimgartner is a valuable employee and his skills could be better used in another job.
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The acknowledgment that Heimgartner left El Dorado in part because the agency wanted new leadership came during an intense grilling by lawmakers at a hearing on problems in the corrections system.
Prisons in El Dorado and Lansing have had high staffing vacancies in recent months. El Dorado had 93 vacant positions and Lansing had 115 on Tuesday, according to information from KDOC.
At El Dorado, workers have been on 12-hour shifts since the beginning of July and KDOC has declared an emergency to justify the long hours.
In addition, multiple stabbings and inmate uprisings have roiled El Dorado, including one episode on June 29 in which prisoners refused for hours to return to their cell houses.
An emergency call log seen by the McClatchy news organization indicates violence occurred during the incident, that at least one inmate had a weapon and that there was a fire. The agency has said no violence took place.
"It concerns me that we’re not getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth when it comes to this," Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, told Norwood.
"We’re your partner. You need us. But we also need you to be straightforward with us and tell us what’s going on because we’re the ones you’re going to have to turn to for help. You need more money," she said.
Norwood apologized for not providing more information and said staffing problems have not contributed to inmate unrest. He praised prison staff.
"I think one of the bottom lines to this is the staff did a great job at El Dorado in managing a couple of difficult situations and the result was that no staff were injured, no inmates were injured and there was very minimal damage to any property," he said.
The incidents at El Dorado have occurred in the wake of transfers of inmates from Lansing and the decision to double-bunk several correctional facilities across the state, including El Dorado. The agency has said it made the transfers in an effort to balance the number of maximum-security inmates between facilities.
KDOC wants to move forward with building a new prison at Lansing, potentially as early this winter. The new prison will consolidate space and reduce the number of staff needed.
Information from the agency released Thursday shed new light on the depth of staff turnover at Lansing and El Dorado.
Turnover at Lansing was 37 percent in fiscal year 2017, which ended in June. That’s up slightly from 36 percent the year before.
Turnover at El Dorado was 46 percent. That was up from 34 percent the year before.
Kansas also has among the lowest starting salary for corrections officers among nearby states. Colorado pays a starting salary of more than $40,000. In Kansas, it’s about $29,000.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said it’s a “distinct possibility” that pay raises will be on the agenda heading into the 2018 session.
“These recent incidents have basically raised eyebrows,” he said. “It’s something we’re concerned about.”
Health insurance costs have taken a larger share of worker salaries over the past few years, Norwood said. Gross pay before taxes but after health insurance costs for entry-level workers has fallen from $29,460 in 2015 to $25,480 this year, according to the agency.
"I certainly think the pay is part of it, but the working conditions is also part of that," Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said of problems facing the prisons.
"I don’t think it’s probably a good thing for people to be working 12- and 16-hour shifts in situations where we have people double-bunked in a very small facility."
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star