Kansas prisons have been under-staffed for years. Inmate populations are overcapacity. Uprisings in recent years have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Now, the state’s corrections agency is declaring an emergency at one of its largest prisons – El Dorado Correctional – because of staffing shortages. More than 25 percent of the prison’s uniformed positions are vacant.
Under the declaration, the state will be able to hire temporary staff to relieve corrections officers and other personnel working long hours.
It’s not the first time staffing issues have prompted the corrections agency to declare an emergency at El Dorado. In 2017, prison employees worked 12-hour shifts.
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The new emergency declaration comes as the prison is operating above capacity, with 2,029 inmates as of Monday. That’s 74 over its limit.
On Monday, El Dorado had 95 total vacant positions – 84 of those for uniformed officers. The state prison at Lansing has roughly 170 openings, with 114 of those uniformed officers.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said Tuesday the problems at El Dorado are among the “serious consequences to the mismanagement of the last few years” – a reference to the corrections leadership under Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer.
“Through the transition and the early weeks of my administration, it became increasingly clear that many of our state agencies have been neglected and underfunded,” Kelly said.
Kelly said she had met with legislative leaders on Tuesday morning to discuss the prison system. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she hopes prison reform is an area where bipartisan cooperation can be found.
“We must work to find long-term solutions to address this crisis in our state,” Wagle said.
Kansas prisons have struggled for years to attract and retain workers. Starting pay lags behind some neighboring states, and wages for jails and other law enforcement positions are often more competitive.
In total, 411 positions are vacant in Kansas’s prison system.
It means that remaining staff are working more hours. Overtime costs rose from $1.7 million in fiscal year 2013 to $4.9 million in 2017. In 2018, they reached $8.2 million.
The emergency declaration allows the Department of Corrections to hire workers without benefits at a higher wage. Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said the agency will be able to hire officers at $20.50 an hour, but that they won’t be eligible for health coverage or retirement benefits. The starting wage for officers is currently $15.75 an hour.
The hope is to attract corrections officers who may have left the agency, but are willing to come back on a part-time basis. He also indicated it’s likely that employees at El Dorado will have to return to 12-hour shifts.
Outside of the emergency declaration, Werholtz is also looking for employees at other prisons to volunteer for shifts at El Dorado.
“It’s going to be a combination of a number of things but we needed to do the declaration in order to offer the higher wage and to get the scheduling flexibility,” Werholtz said.
The Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents corrections officers, said that it was encouraged by the emergency declaration, but called it a temporary fix to a long-standing problem.
Corrections officers and staff put themselves at tremendous risk, union president Sarah LaFrenz said. The risk only increases when staffing shortages require mandatory, unplanned overtime, she added.
“Workplace safety is a right that all Kansans deserve. It is high time that our state government address this serious, ongoing problem,” LaFrenz said.
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican who chairs the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, contends corrections officer pay must rise. Kelly has asked for $3 million in new funding to fill vacant positions in the correctional system, but Jennings doesn’t believe that’s enough.
A joint legislative committee focused on corrections recommended last year a 15 percent across-the-board pay increase for corrections workers. A pay raise of that size, coupled with other changes, would cost about $20 million, Jennings estimated.
“So I don’t think $3 million is going to go nearly far enough to address this issue,” Jennings said. “And it’s not isolated to El Dorado. These issues exist at all the institutions, at some places higher than others.”
Werholtz has painted an often grim portrait of the prisons in a series of briefings for lawmakers. He has said the facilities are “under stress.”
He has released photos showing the damage caused by uprisings in several prisons – including El Dorado – in 2017 and 2018. The disturbances caused at least $414,000 in damage, the Associated Press reported.
Inmate transfers made before the rebuilding of the Lansing prison contributed to the disturbances in El Dorado and elsewhere, prison officials now say. At the time, the corrections agency said the moves were made to help deal with staffing issues at the facility, but Werholtz says the moves were made rapidly against best practices.
The prison system is running out of space to house additional inmates, limiting the agency’s options.
“The biggest problem is not being able to separate people who need to be separated, because there’s just no place for them to go,” Werholtz said.