Politics & Government

El Dorado prison workers to begin 12-hour shifts amid staff shortage

Guards at El Dorado Correctional Facility will soon begin working 12-hour shifts.
Guards at El Dorado Correctional Facility will soon begin working 12-hour shifts. File photo

Prison guards at El Dorado Correctional Facility will soon begin working 12-hour shifts because the state can’t find enough workers.

The longer shifts for guards in the central unit will begin July 2. The facility will extend the workers’ current eight-hour shifts to 12 hours for 90 days before reevaluating, according to a letter the Kansas Department of Corrections sent to workers on Friday. The department gave The Eagle the letter.

“Due to the shortage of qualified applicants in the recruitment region surrounding the El Dorado Correctional Facility, KDOC is currently utilizing overtime to staff the facility. We are reviewing all possible changes that can be made until new staff can be hired and trained to alleviate the shortages,” agency spokesman Todd Fertig said in a statement.

The agency told the workers’ union, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, on Thursday that the workers’ shifts will be extended.

“That’s going to be very difficult for them. Many of them have families to take care of, a lot of them have kids in daycare,” said Robert Choromanski, director of KOSE.

In an email to lawmakers this week, Choromanski wrote that the El Dorado facility has 90 staff vacancies. Fertig did not answer a question about whether KOSE’s statement was correct.

KDOC’s letter to El Dorado staff, from Warden James Heimgartner, says the facility is “actively recruiting” applicants with mailers. The mailers will reach more than 18,000 residential addresses within a 60-mile radius of the facility next week, he wrote.

“Additionally, we will attend an employment fair next Wednesday for the displaced 270 Excel Industries workers in the Hesston/Newton area,” Heimgartner wrote.

Choromanski also sought to draw attention in his letter to lawmakers over what he called overcrowding in the facility.

Two of three sections of the prison were above capacity as of June 5, according to inmate populations posted to an internal KDOC network that was shared with KOSE by a union steward.

One section with a capacity of 929 was housing 1,157 inmates. Another section housed 377 but has a capacity of 320.

The third section has a capacity of 262 and was housing 260.

“This is completely unacceptable to have overcrowded prisons as it puts our correctional officers and staff at risk of injury in guarding so many inmates and increases the chance of inmates rioting and escaping from the prison that would put the public at risk,” Choromanski wrote.

Fertig did not answer a request for the current inmate population at El Dorado.

About 150 mental health inmates have been transferred to El Dorado from a facility in Larned, Choromanski said. The corrections department had announced in May that the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility was being converted to a medium-security prison and that 150 inmates would be moved because Larned could no longer accommodate them.

In addition, El Dorado may face increased pressure if the state proceeds with a plan to build a new prison in Lansing – a move that would require its prisoners to be temporarily relocated elsewhere.

The budget approved by the Legislature authorizes a lease-purchase agreement and up to $155 million in bonds to finance the new prison. But the budget also includes a provision that would require the project to be reviewed by two legislative committees, legislative leaders and a state advisory panel that includes architects.

Brownback has until Sunday to take action on the budget. It is unknown whether he will attempt to veto the provision requiring legislative review.

KDOC hopes to have a final contract this fall with a private company to build a new prison. The department has proposed having the company that builds the prison lease it to Kansas for up to 40 years before the state owns it.

In a memo in April, Sam Cline, Lansing’s warden, wrote to employees that the relocation of approximately 600 inmates was “underway with plans to spread this number across the state.”

The Associated Press obtained the memo. Fertig told the AP at the time that the memo accurately represented what would happen once the agency hired a company to build the prison, but that it was a miscommunication for Cline to suggest a mass movement of prisoners was occurring.

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, chairs a joint legislative committee overseeing the corrections system. He said the situation at El Dorado would likely be a topic of conversation.

“In order to maintain order in facilities and safety for both staff and inmates that are there, you have to have a minimum staff level there to do business,” Jennings said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman