Corrections officers at the short-staffed state prison in El Dorado will receive a 10 percent pay raise, Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday. Officers at other prisons will get a 5 percent bump.
"This is a first step," Brownback said.
The governor made the decision amid a high turnover rate at the prison – nearly half of all workers left last year – and mounting scrutiny of multiple episodes of inmate unrest this summer. The state has declared the staffing shortage at El Dorado an emergency.
"Addressing recruitment and retention will require commitment from the Legislature, and I encourage them to work with the Department of Corrections in the 2018 legislative session," Brownback said at a news conference at El Dorado Correctional Facility.
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The current starting wage for Kansas corrections officers is less than their counterparts in most other states. In addition, the jail in nearby Sedgwick County offers higher starting pay.
Entry-level pay at El Dorado will rise from $13.95 to $15.75 an hour. Entry-level pay at all other facilities will rise to $14.66 an hour.
The raises, which will be paid for within the existing state budget, are scheduled to go into effect later this month. The state must first confer with the union that represents the officers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
Robert Choromanski, executive director of the union, called the raise a good first step and long overdue but said more is needed. He noted the raise applies only to officers, not to counselors, maintenance workers and others.
And he voiced concern about creating unequal pay levels at different prisons. “This speaks to the unintended consequences of applying a band-aid solution to a gaping wound,” he said. “...The Governor is applying a quick fix to a systemic problem.”
Among lawmakers, the pay raise drew both cautious praise and concern.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, called the pay increase "long overdue and a step in the right direction" in a statement. Wagle and House Democrats put forward separate pay raise proposals in the past few weeks.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Thursday she was concerned that Lansing was getting only half the raise of officers at El Dorado, noting the Lansing prison has “some very serious problems.”
“This could cause more problems than it fixes,” Kelly said of the pay increase. “And I say that because one, I’m not sure it’s enough at El Dorado and I know it’s not enough for Lansing and Hutch. Anytime you create inequities among a class of employees, you create huge problems.”
Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, had endorsed a special session to raise pay. He echoed Brownback in calling the raises a good first step but said more needs to be done. He expressed concern that pay levels would not be equal among the prisons.
"It’s absolutely not ideal and when we go back in January, the task will be to get everyone to the baseline of 10 percent," Claeys said.
El Dorado and the prison in Lansing both have high staff vacancies. As of Aug. 14, El Dorado had 94 openings and Lansing had 109. The system overall had 314 vacancies.
Scrutiny of the prison system began building in June when KDOC announced it would place corrections officers at El Dorado on 12-hour shifts in response to vacancies. Then, on June 29, inmates refused to go back in their cell houses for hours. KDOC said the incident was resolved peacefully and without violence; a call log indicated that violence and a fire occurred.
Other episodes of unrest also came to light, attracting the attention of lawmakers. Kelly has requested an audit of the unrest at El Dorado.
Disciplinary cases at the prison have surged this year, according to data obtained by The Eagle through a records request. As of mid-July, the prison had more than 2,400 disciplinary cases this year – on track to surpass the 2,841 cases at the facility in all of 2016.
KDOC transferred inmates among prisons this spring. The agency has said it is attempting to balance the number of maximum security inmates among its three largest prisons: Lansing, El Dorado and Hutchinson.
The agency and lawmakers have said the transfers, which upended the routines and locations of inmates, contributed to the unrest at El Dorado.
"While an increase in pay for our hardworking corrections staff is a step in the right direction," Rep. Mary Martha Good, R-El Dorado, said, "I hope the governor and the Department of Corrections quickly review processes currently in place regarding movement of offenders among our facilities."
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star