The staffing shortage at El Dorado Correctional Facility constitutes an official emergency, the state said in response to a union complaint over mandatory 12-hour shifts for workers at the prison.
The prison is troubled: The state has had trouble finding workers and has had several inmate disturbances recently. Discipline of inmates surged this spring.
Lawmakers will delve into issues at the facility on Thursday during a meeting of the Legislative Budget Committee. Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood is expected to address the panel.
The agency will continue to use mandatory overtime when needed and rely on a 12-hour work schedule, "citing staff shortages and public safety as an officially declared emergency," Norwood said in a letter dated Aug. 1. Use of the 12-hour shifts will be reviewed every 90 days, the letter said.
Mandatory overtime and extended hours are allowed in emergencies under the agency’s agreement with the union that represents prison workers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
"KDOC management deemed (El Dorado prison) staff shortages resulting in the facility operating at critical staffing levels that could potentially result in a risk to public safety as an ‘officially declared emergency,’" Norwood wrote in the letter.
He said in a statement that the temporary staffing emergency was declared “in order to provide the KDOC maximum flexibility with staffing resources” and in response to a union grievance.
KOSE filed a grievance over reports that some workers were being required to work 16-hour shifts. The union, which provided the letter to reporters, criticized the agency for not saying it had declared an emergency when the longer shifts were implemented.
"KDOC has not been transparent with KOSE by trying to deliberately hold off declaring as long as possible" an emergency, KOSE director Robert Choromanski said in an email.
"KDOC has been trying to save face and embarrassment by forcing our hard working correctional officers under the radar into working these extra, unsafe, and long hours without taking the necessary step of declaring this to be an official emergency until this afternoon."
Choromanski also said with an emergency declared, Gov. Sam Brownback should call a special session of the Legislature to increase officers’ pay immediately. Lawmakers adjourned for the year in June.
Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the department is actively taking steps to address staffing levels.
Norwood said staffing continues “to improve with increased recruiting efforts and a reduction in the inmate population. The need to require staff to work beyond their scheduled 12 hour shift has reduced substantially.”
The agency implemented 12-hour shifts in June in response to high numbers of staff vacancies. Staffing numbers have improved somewhat in the past few weeks.
As of July 24, El Dorado had 80 open positions, down from 94 on July 5. That followed a push by KDOC to recruit new workers that included sending mailers to area homes.
The prison has dealt with multiple stabbings and inmate unrest over the past few weeks. The incidents have occurred as some inmates have been shifted from Lansing Correctional Facility to El Dorado.
Department data analyzed by the Associated Press showed that for the past three months, an average of 14 inmate disciplinary reports were filed a day at the El Dorado prison. But the number spiked at more than 20 on 16 days, including two for which disturbances or inmate-on-inmate altercations were reported.
Contributing: The Associated Press