Politics & Government

Lawmaker pushes for audit of El Dorado prison as incidents of unrest mount

2017: Corrections boss talks about Kansas staffing issues

(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.
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(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.

State auditors will investigate recent episodes of unrest at El Dorado Correctional Facility under a proposal that moved forward Monday.

The proposal circulated as auditors separately reported that Kansas officials used inconsistent assumptions in a cost estimate for rebuilding Lansing Correctional that favored selling the facility to a private company.

Sen. Laura Kelly’s request for an audit of El Dorado and the auditors’ report on Lansing come as both prisons struggle with staffing problems. The number of inmate disturbances at El Dorado continues to increase, and its warden moved out of that position last week.

"I think that there are some things going on in the Department of Corrections that are not being properly reported, and I'd like to get to the bottom of it," said Kelly, D-Topeka.

Kelly’s request for an audit came too late to be considered by the Legislative Post Audit Committee when it met Monday. The chairman, Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, said he would approve the audit but that the panel could overrule him when it meets again in October. Work on the audit won’t begin until after the committee reviews the request.

The most significant episode of unrest at El Dorado took place on June 29, when inmates refused for several hours to return to their cell block. KDOC has said the incident was resolved peacefully, without violence. An emergency call log seen by the McClatchy news organization indicates violence did occur, that at least one inmate had a weapon and that there was a fire.

The prison experienced similar incidents on May 8 and June 24. Those episodes, which also involved inmates refusing to return to their cells, did not become public until the Associated Press reported on them earlier in July.

Additionally, multiple stabbings have occurred at the prison in July, and the prison experienced another episode of unrest on Friday.

Under Kelly’s proposal, auditors would review records, reports and video footage of incidents at El Dorado in May and June. The goal would be to determine what actually happened.

Kelly said she was concerned about staffing and incidents that have occurred and not been reported.

"I think that we need some more transparency in the Department of Corrections," she said.

‘An adjustment period’

The Department of Corrections has been shifting prisoners over the past few months, including sending Lansing inmates to El Dorado.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told the Associated Press on Friday that "instigators" of the disturbances in May and June were relatively new to the prison and were protesting its more restrictive environment.

"It's been an adjustment period for that inmate population moving to El Dorado," Norwood said. "I look at this in some ways as a kind of a growing pains issue at El Dorado."

The agency has released few details about what led to El Dorado warden James Heimgartner’s departure from the facility last week. KDOC spokesman Todd Fertig on Friday said only that Heimgartner had accepted a new position within the agency.

An email from Fertig sent to KDOC workers on Thursday said Heimgartner would work directly with Deputy Secretary of Corrections Johnnie Goddard. The Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union representing some of the prison workers, sent the email to The Eagle.

Robert Choromanski, KOSE director, suggested some workers were dissatisfied with the warden.

Asked Monday if Heimgartner had been removed to help address issues at the prison, Fertig said: "I was just told he was taking a different job at the agency."

Fertig said Dan Schnurr, the warden at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, will be acting warden while the agency searches for a replacement.

Both El Dorado and Lansing are dealing with large numbers of staff vacancies. At El Dorado, corrections officers have moved to 12-hour shifts as a result.

As of July 24, El Dorado had 80 open positions, down from 94 on July 5. That follows a push by KDOC to recruit new workers that included sending mailers to area homes.

The number of vacancies is increasing at Lansing, which had 116 open positions on July 24, up from 105 on July 5.

"We’re understaffed, pay is low. Just a lot of different contributing factors to that," Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said.

State estimates flawed

KDOC hopes the construction of a new prison at Lansing could ultimately ease staffing requirements. A new prison would require fewer corrections officers through consolidation, the state has said.

The agency wants to enter into a contract for construction this fall, with demolition beginning as early as this winter.

An audit report released Monday says KDOC overestimated cost savings under a lease-purchase agreement to rebuild Lansing and that it would be more cost-effective for the state to borrow money by issuing bonds instead. Bonds are frequently used by all levels of government to finance construction.

"These results differ from KDOC’s preliminary estimates which were missing key variables and used inconsistent assumptions that tended to favor a lease-purchase option," the report said.

Under the auditors’ estimates, using bonds for the project could ultimately cost the state $178 million, while a lease purchase would cost up to $206 million.

The agency’s estimates didn’t include the final payment the state would make to purchase the facility at the end of a lease-purchase agreement, which could be upwards of $35 million. In addition, KDOC estimates didn’t adjust future costs to today’s dollar amounts, auditors found.

A short letter from Norwood in response to the audit says only that the project has not yet completed the request-for-proposal process.

"I think all along we’ve been open to either option," Fertig said afterward the meeting. "We’ve never tried to weigh one in favor of the other."

The agency must consult with the Legislative Budget Committee after a proposal is selected. The State Finance Council, which includes lawmakers and the governor, must approve it.

Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star and the Associated Press

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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