Politics & Government

‘Please don’t quit’: Kansas governor addresses prison staff after emergency declared

The governor of Kansas and interim corrections secretary traveled to the El Dorado state prison and asked staff to keep working just two days after declaring an emergency at the facility.

“I know it’s asking a lot when I ask you to hang in there,” Gov. Laura Kelly told more than 100 prison employees at El Dorado Correctional Facility on Thursday. “Please don’t quit. Trust that we will work this out as fast as we can.”

The Kansas Department of Corrections on Tuesday declared an emergency at it’s El Dorado facility, one of the state’s largest prisons. The prison has 95 vacant staff positions while also housing 74 inmates over its limit.

“What’s happening here right now is not sustainable,” Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz told prison employees.

Several staff members raised issues of working long hours of overtime, sometimes with few breaks, and years of no pay raises. When there have been raises, the additional money has been offset by health insurance increases, the prison employees said.

With 411 unfilled positions across the prison system, its employees have been left to work more hours. Overtime costs at the agency rose to $8.2 million in 2018, up from $4.9 million in 2017 and $1.7 million in 2013.

“I want to thank you for what you have done to this point and ask you to hang in there a little bit longer as we try to get this thing solved,” Werholtz said.

The state needs a mix of short-term and long-term fixes, Werholtz said, to reduce the number of hours worked by employees and solve wage issues, “so there’s an incentive for you all to stay here.”

He said there also needs to be a solution for the increased prison population at El Dorado and across the Department of Corrections. The prison population is growing at the rate of one new cell house a year, he said.

There are no quick, easy or inexpensive fixes, Werholtz said.

Kelly said legislative leadership of both parties are “on board” with finding solutions. She has asked the Legislature for $3 million in new funding to fill vacant positions.

“I think for the first time we actually might get some bipartisan cooperation in actually addressing this issue,” she said.

Union president Sarah LaFrenz told prison employees that they are the experts on what they experience at work and urged them to talk with legislators. She said employee concerns have been ignored in the past, but government officials are now listening.

“This is not new information,” LaFrenz said. “These staffing problems have been like this for some time. You have continued to do the work and keep this facility running. Thank you for that.”

Last month, Werholtz told lawmakers that double-bunking inmates and moving inmates, in addition to staffing shortages, contributed to disturbances at several prisons over the past two years. He released photos that showed destroyed facilities and injured officers.

A June 2017 uprising at El Dorado saw 70 inmates leave their cell house, light a fire, break into an office and steal items. An incident there in July 2018 resulted in a burned building and ransacked offices.

The state prison system, because of the emergency declaration, can now hire temporary workers at a higher wage, but without benefits. The temporary officers will be paid $20.50 per hour, above the $15.75 starting wage for full-time officers.

“The pay is not good enough,” Kelly told state employees, saying their work is both difficult and dangerous.

Werholtz said the Department of Corrections hopes to attract retired corrections officers who may want to work part-time, as well as employees who have left the agency but would be willing to work a shift as a second job. Those workers would already have the necessary six-week training to be an officer, he said.

Kelly said lawmakers should also look at revising sentencing guidelines and whether everyone being sentenced to prison needs to be there.

Contributing: Jonathan Shorman of The Eagle

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