Disciplinary cases against inmates at El Dorado Correctional Facility surged this spring as its population increased amid staffing shortages.
As of mid-July, the prison has had more than 2,400 disciplinary cases this year. That’s on track to surpass the 2,841 cases at the facility in all of 2016.
The rising number of cases underscores concerns among a union for corrections officers and some lawmakers over safety at the facility, which is under stress because of difficulty filling empty positions.
The state also must pay overtime to current workers to maintain staffing requirements and the union says some employees are now being forced to work 16-hour shifts.
Monthly disciplinary case data at the prison shows that during 2016, the number of cases never exceeded 273 a month and were as low as 181 in September. But beginning this spring, cases began to climb, from 302 in March to 550 in June.
The Eagle obtained the data from the Kansas Department of Corrections through an open records request.
On June 29, some inmates refused to return to their cell block for several hours. The unrest potentially contributed to the high number of June cases; visitation was cancelled indefinitely for two cell houses.
The number of disciplinary cases had been trending upwards before then, however.
"Before June 29 happened, I had been getting emails and calls from people saying, ‘Hey, we have a disturbance, they’ve taken over the yard,’ or whatever," said Robert Choromanski, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union that represents state workers.
"So, it’s not like it all started on June 29. It started a couple weeks, a couple months prior to that with regular intervals of protest or disturbances."
Violence occurred last week, however, when an inmate stabbed another inmate numerous times. The circumstances surrounding the incident have not been released.
The disciplinary cases are generated when an inmate receives a disciplinary report or summary judgment citation. In response, inmates are allowed to plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. They are also entitled to a hearing in front of a hearing officer where they can provide evidence and call witnesses.
The Department of Corrections has said the June 29 episode was resolved without violence. An emergency call log book viewed by McClatchy newspapers indicated violence did occur and at least one inmate had a weapon.
At an event earlier this month at El Dorado, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood appeared to acknowledge that the influx of maximum security inmates into the facility had played a role in the unrest.
"I think it’s a factor of getting used to the security procedures here,” Norwood said. “El Dorado was built for a max security inmate population, and we were simply balancing that population throughout the state."
The department has increased the amount of communication between staff and inmates and that had addressed most of the issues, he said.
As the number of disciplinary reports rose this spring, so did the prison’s population. El Dorado took in more than 200 additional inmates between April and July, when its population stood at a little more than 1,900.
KDOC has said it is attempting to move some inmates out of the prison temporarily to alleviate pressure on staff. Late last week the population was 1,759.
Does the rising population this spring explain the increasing number of disciplinary cases or are other factors involved?
The department of corrections did not answer the question.
Instead, the department spokesman, Todd Fertig, said in a written statement: "KDOC has balanced the maximum security population between (Lansing Correctional Facility), (Hutchinson Correctional Facility) and (El Dorado Correctional Facility)."
"This has resulted in (El Dorado) housing a larger number of Max Security inmates," he said.
At the same time more maximum security prisoners were being moved to El Dorado, the prison has been battling a staffing shortage. As of early July, the prison had more than 90 vacancies.
The agency has been more aggressively recruiting workers in the past few weeks – going to job fairs and sending mailers to area homes.
The prison moved some corrections officers to 12-hour shifts early this month. The state workers union has filed a complaint alleging some workers are being forced to work 16-hour shifts, which it says violates an employment agreement.
The department has declined to comment.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which is charged with developing the state budget. He said in a statement that he will propose a 15 percent to 20 percent raise for corrections officers in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
"We owe it to our hard-working corrections officers to provide for their safety by recruiting and retaining qualified guards and improving the condition of our facilities for those who risk their lives to keep us safe," Claeys said.
The state spent $5.1 million on overtime pay for prison workers during fiscal 2017, which ended June 30. About $3.2 million of that had been budgeted.
Overtime at El Dorado cost $754,000 – 127 percent above budget during the same time period.
Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado, said raising pay for corrections officers was a long-term solution but wouldn’t address issues at the prison in the short term. Other places in the community also sometimes have difficulty attracting workers, he said.
"It’s not just the prison that is having trouble – everybody is," Givens said.