The Kansas prison system is under pressure and running out of room as overtime costs spike amid staffing shortfalls.
The new leadership of the state Department of Corrections is painting a somber, sometimes “terrifying” portrait of the situation inside the state’s prisons. Corrections officials promise a new approach, and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is asking lawmakers for more funding.
Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz has made a sharp break with former agency leaders appointed during Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s tenure, saying that double-bunking inmates and moving inmates contributed to disturbances that rocked several prisons over the past two years.
For the first time, the full scope of the uprisings is becoming public with the release of photos documenting destroyed property. The corrections agency has also released graphic photos showing bloodied and bruised staff members as a way to illustrate the sometimes-violent conditions they face.
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Excessive overtime, undertrained staff and too many inmates in too little space with not enough to do — all of it creates a volatile mix, Werholtz said.
“My fear is that we are headed down this road,” Werholtz told lawmakers on Wednesday. “In my career, I have been to the funeral of one employee who was killed in the line of duty. That was a long, long time ago and I hope I never have to do that again.”
He said that if lawmakers see the photos “I think you’ll see how close we have come a number of times. And when I say the system is under stress, I hope you will believe I’m not exaggerating.”
Kelly named Werholtz to lead the state prison system on an interim basis in early January. The announcement marked a return to leadership for Werholtz, who previously led the department from 2002 to 2010.
Kansas prisons have struggled for years to find workers. Throughout the prison system, 323 positions have been held open for an entire year. That’s $17.2 million in unfilled positions.
At the same time, prisons are relying more frequently on overtime. Overtime costs rose from $1.7 million in fiscal year 2013 to $4.9 million in 2017. In 2018, they shot up to $8.2 million.
Corrections officers have received pay raises in the past few years. But many say that with rising health insurance costs, their actual take-home pay has declined, Werholtz said. If Kansas corrections officer had the same starting pay as they did in 1987 adjusted for inflation, they would make $20.01 an hour. Instead, starting pay is $15.75 an hour.
More than half of the staff has fewer than two years of experience, he said.
Werholtz said he was told it had become common practice to close some security posts within prisons because of a lack of staffing, a tactic called “collapsing posts.” That means corrections officers may be watching more inmates than normal or may have to close part of the prison.
“Collapsing posts is not a desirable practice, especially over a long period of time. And it’s my perception at this point that all of the facilities have been collapsing a lot of posts for a long time,” Werholtz said.
The staffing struggles continue amid the rebuilding of large portions of Lansing Correctional Facility in northeast Kansas. Demolition of the existing prison began in April 2018 and the new maximum and medium security facility is scheduled to open in January 2020. A minimum security site is to open in October 2019, according to KDOC.
The finished facility will add only about 34 beds, Werholtz said. The entire prison system is slightly exceeding capacity, according to figures from earlier this month.
Over the years, Kansas prisons have turned to double-bunking to house additional inmates. Quite simply, it means an additional bunk – another inmate – in a cell.
Werholtz isn’t a fan of the practice, especially for higher security inmates.
“I don’t want to lay everything that happened at the facilities at the feet of double bunking, but when you increase the density of the population within the confines of the facility, I personally felt like it was a bad decision,” Werholtz said. “It’s one we’re going to have to live with. We don’t have a way of digging out of that right now.”
A series of disturbances throughout the prison system in 2017 drew legislative and public scrutiny. During a June 2017 uprising at El Dorado Correctional Facility, up to 70 inmates were able to leave their cell house. Inmates lit a fire, broke into an office and stole items.
Lawmakers and others have said a large movement of inmates out of Lansing helped spark the disturbances. At the time, corrections officials said the moves were made to help deal with staffing issues.
Werholtz said the moves were made rapidly and may have been contrary to best practices. In some cases, young male inmates were clustered together in a single facility, he said, adding that they should be spread out.
An internal KDOC report on a June 2017 uprising at El Dorado said inmates were able to leave their cell house because staff didn’t properly secure the doors. Werholtz said he read reports on two incidents and neither named staffing shortages as a primary cause. Werholtz said that wasn’t right.
“That’s one of the things that I think really bothered us, was a sense of saying this happened because an officer didn’t do something right or a piece of equipment was left some place it shouldn’t be. And those things could be true, but in and of themselves, did that create that situation? I don’t think so,” Werholtz said.
KDOC in recent days has also provided lawmakers with photos showing the damage caused by the disturbances at the prisons. Photos of a June 2017 incident at El Dorado show storage units with graffiti, and trashed offices. Photos taken after a September 2017 uprising show an overturned vehicle and additional smashed glass.
Photos taken after a July 2018 incident at El Dorado show a burned building, ransacked offices and a bathroom where fixtures have been smashed.
The agency has also released photos of injured staff members, though it is not clear whether they are connected to specific uprisings. In one, a man has a blacken, swollen eye. In another, a man has a cut along the top of his head.
One photo appears to show an officer whose face has been smeared with feces; another shows a man with blood running along his neck.
Lawmakers who heard from Werholtz praised his candor, and at times expressed frustration that the previous secretary, Joe Norwood, had not been more forthcoming.
“It was refreshing to hear what was actually going on, but also absolutely terrifying,” Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.
Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, said what Werholtz said matches what he had been hearing from the inside of the prisons. Previous corrections officials gave a “rosy picture” of life inside, he said.
“I’m truly disgusted over the last two years what we did not hear from the previous secretary,” Delperdang said.
Kelly has asked for $3 million in new funding to fill vacant positions in the correctional system. Lawmakers typically work on the state budget for much of session and final decisions on spending may not be made for months.