Amid mounting calls for action to increase pay for state prison workers, a Kansas Department of Corrections official on Friday said in an internal email the agency needed to downplay the possibility of a special session because it would put the likely next governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, in a “tight spot.”
“That gets very hairy and puts the gov office in a tight spot. Especially if Colyer takes office,” Jimmy Caprio, the agency’s legislative liaison wrote to a Corrections spokeswoman.
“His first act as gov would be to reconvene the legislature, where a tax increase would almost certainly be proposed, which Colyer hates.”
A McClatchy reporter was accidentally sent the email on Friday after asking for the agency’s response to Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, who on Friday called for a special session to increase pay for corrections officers.
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A spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback later said Caprio “did not speak on behalf of the administration and is no longer employed by the Department of Corrections.”
Colyer, in Wichita earlier in the day, acknowledged the state’s prisons face problems but didn’t weigh in on the call for a special session.
“There are a bunch of challenges in the prison system right now,” Colyer said.
“We want to work with the team on this. (Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood) has declared that we are going to work on these issues. And it’s not just one little thing – there are things there. And we’re committed to working with him.”
The prisons in El Dorado and Lansing are bedeviled by staffing shortages, and El Dorado has faced multiple episodes of inmate unrest this summer amid the transfer of prisoners from Lansing to El Dorado.
Figures released by the state this week showed uniformed vacancies in the system had jumped by 14 percent in the span of roughly a week. Additional information released by the Kansas Department of Corrections also showed the uniformed staff turnover rate at the El Dorado Correctional Facility for fiscal year 2017 was more than 46 percent.
The turnover rate at Lansing, the state’s largest prison, was 37 percent.
Claeys said he wants lawmakers to return to Topeka to approve an increase in pay for corrections officers. Entry-level pay starts at $13.95 an hour.
“Having 40 percent turnover is not an acceptable situation. It’s going to put our guards’ lives at risk,” Claeys said. “It is putting our guards’ lives at risk.”
Norwood faced questions on Thursday during a legislative committee hearing about pay issues. He said the starting pay of $13.95 is “considerably lower” than at many other states.
Lawmakers are not scheduled to return until January. But Claeys, who chairs a House budget subcommittee focused on public safety, said action is needed before an officer is hurt or killed.
“We’ve reached a point where this crisis needs to be addressed,” said Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, who also has called for a raise for corrections officers of around 15 to 20 percent.
Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and president of the Senate, said she was not ready to support a special session.
“The employment shortage and safety concerns legislators are just now learning about in our prisons are very disturbing,” she said in a written statement late Friday.
“Before I urge the governor to call a special session, I have submitted questions to the department just today seeking answers and clarity. I want to ensure that all possible solutions are exhausted prior to spending tax dollars on a special session.”
Colyer refused to say whether he supports a special session, noting “there’s only one governor at a time.”
A spokeswoman for Brownback said in a message Friday afternoon that the “governor’s office is engaging with the Department of Corrections as they actively take steps to address staffing levels.”
“We do not anticipate calling a special session,” said Melika Willoughby, the governor’s spokeswoman.
President Donald Trump has nominated Brownback to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The position requires U.S. Senate confirmation, but depending on how quickly senators act, Brownback could resign as governor within a matter of weeks – leaving Colyer to lead the response to problems at the prisons.
Separately, leading Kansas House Democrats stood outside the state’s largest prison and called for a pay raise for corrections officers in light of staffing shortages, employee turnover and trouble within the state’s prison system.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, told a group gathered in front of the Lansing Correctional Facility that the state is facing a crisis and criticized Brownback’s administration for not taking more public action.
“We keep picking at this and finding more and more,” Ward said. “Is somebody going to have to die? Or are we going to have to have a serious event in a prison before we take action?”
Ward, joined by a trio of Democratic House lawmakers, called for an immediate pay increase of ten percent for corrections officers that would take effect Sept. 1. Under the Democratic proposal, the Kansas Department of Corrections would pay for the raises with its existing budget and the Legislature would restore the funding when it convenes in January.
Ward said their raise proposal could give people time to see what impact it had and if it could “stop the bleeding.”
“We want the secretary to take the money from the back end of his budget this year, spend it on this pay increase and when we come back to work in January, like we do every year, we’ll have a supplemental budget that will back fill that taking of money we’re doing now,” Ward said.
Ward admitted the budget move could cause “some heartburn,” over the next few months but said “it’s the greater good at this point.”
After hearing about Claey’s call for a special session, Ward said he preferred the plan Democrats presented at Lansing.