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'I've never seen anything like this' — issues at Kansas prisons alarm lawmakers, workers

The Lansing Correctional Facility had 116 staff vacancies as of Monday.
The Lansing Correctional Facility had 116 staff vacancies as of Monday.

The staffing shortage at Kansas’ largest prison has increased in recent weeks as a workers union and lawmakers continue to express concerns about the state corrections system.

The Lansing Correctional Facility had 116 staff vacancies as of Monday. The Kansas Department of Corrections says the facility, which houses more than 2,000 inmates, calls for a staff of around 682 workers.

“Everyone is concerned about staffing,” Lansing warden Sam Cline said in a statement emailed to The Star. “Many of our employees like the work they do and wonder why it is viewed negatively.”

But in a message distributed by the Kansas Organization of State Employees, one employee at Lansing said the situation at the facility was the “worst I’ve ever seen it get and it doesn’t look like it will turn around anytime soon. The morale amongst the staff is so very low.”

Another state prison, El Dorado, has also dealt with staff vacancies, and in late June, some inmates refused for several hours to go back to their cell blocks.

The workers union filed a complaint earlier this month and said some employees at El Dorado were being forced to work 16-hour shifts.

On Friday, two inmates were removed from the facility to receive medical treatment after altercations with other inmates, according to Todd Fertig, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections. One of the inmates suffered “several puncture wounds,” he added. No employees were injured in the incidents.

Multiple disturbances have broken out in recent weeks at Lansing, said Robert Choromanski, executive director of the state employees organization.

One of the more serious incidents occurred July 7, according to an employee at the facility who did not wish to be named for fear of losing his job. About a half-dozen inmates were involved in an altercation that left four inmates with stab wound injuries and one with a punctured lung. Two of the inmates required emergency surgery outside the prison, the employee said.

Fertig confirmed two inmates in the altercation were later sent out of Lansing to a medical facility for treatment, but he did not disclose the extent of their injuries.

“Both offenders were returned to (Lansing) and were placed in Restrictive Housing,” Fertig said by email. “No staff were injured in this altercation.”

As to why the disturbances had not initially been disclosed to the public, Fertig said, “There are laws and guidelines on what the agency is required to provide.”

After disturbances, incident reports are filed and prosecutors can file charges and have the option to make the charges public. When media learn of disturbances, he added, the Department of Corrections provides a general statement but otherwise protects inmates’ privacy.

The staffing vacancies at the facility could contribute to an escalation of violence as inmates may exploit the shortage of correctional officers on duty, Choromanski said.

The union and some lawmakers have continued to voice concern in recent weeks about Kansas prisons in the wake of altercations. Some have pointed to employee pay and the working environment as issues. The starting pay for corrections workers at Lansing is $13.95 an hour, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Cline, the Lansing warden, said in an email that recruitment efforts continue.

“We are constantly accepting applications and testing for positions,” he said. “Pay continues to be an issue. We have no plan to bring in outside help.”

Asked about the situation at Kansas prisons, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback released the following statement:

“Governor Brownback was pleased to sign a budget that included pay increases for Corrections workers in each of the past two years,” spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said in an email to The Star. “With unemployment at a fifteen year low of 3.7 percent, it’s a competitive jobs market, but KDOC will continue to compete for staff at our Corrections facilities.”

Choromanski described the situation at Lansing as “like a powder keg ready to explode.”

“It’s putting a lot of stress and anxiety among the veteran staff, because they’re seeing how many people are leaving the Lansing Correctional Facility for better-paying jobs at county jails,” Choromanski said.

The concerns come as the state plans to build a new prison in Lansing to help replace the current facility, which it refers to on the Department of Corrections website as “the state’s largest and oldest correctional complex” for adult male inmates.

Rep. J. R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, recently called for a pay raise for corrections officers of around 15 to 20 percent in light of the prison issues.

Claeys called the raises a “top priority” for the next legislative session.

Lawmakers have tried smaller incremental approaches for raises, Claeys said.

“It’s just not having the impact,” he said. “In fact, you could argue that it’s going backwards. That things are worse now than when we started implementing the raises. So we need something that’s more sizable. We need something that truly solves this problem.”

The prison system is expected to come under further scrutiny next week in Topeka.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said the Legislative Budget Committee will meet Aug. 3 and seek answers about the state’s prison system.

“We’re going to have Corrections come before us, and we’re going to talk about pay raises and we’re going to talk about everything,” said McGinn, the chairwoman of the Senate’s Budget Committee.

McGinn said the double-bunking of inmates, guards’ long hours of work and lockdown problems were among her concerns about the corrections system.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg