Editorials

A summer of uprisings heat up Kansas prison system’s problems

Kansas Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood answers questions Thursday from The Associated Press during an interview in Topeka. Norwood says he doesn't see connections between a recent riot at a prison in Norton and earlier disturbances at a prison in El Dorado.
Kansas Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood answers questions Thursday from The Associated Press during an interview in Topeka. Norwood says he doesn't see connections between a recent riot at a prison in Norton and earlier disturbances at a prison in El Dorado. AP

We want a prison system to be a quiet part of state government. House inmates convicted of serious crimes, keep them safe and obedient while incarcerated, and begin a road of rehabilitation before their releases.

That’s not what we’re getting from the Kansas Department of Corrections. It’s been a summer of heated uprisings that signal chronic problems in need of attention from the legislature.

Kansas’ prison system is broken. Inmate crowding at some facilities is made worse by a shortage of corrections officers. Guards are underpaid and many leave for other careers, or even county jails that pay better. At least four major disturbances this summer – at two prisons – have called attention to the growing problem.

The latest uprising came Tuesday night at Norton Correctional Facility in northwest Kansas. It’s normally a prison for medium- and minimum-security inmates.

What was described as an “inmate disturbance” by a Department of Corrections spokesman was termed a “full-blown riot” by a corrections officer who didn’t want to be named in a McClatchy Newspapers story.

Maximum-security inmates were moved to Norton because of construction at Lansing Correctional Facility. They were unhappy to be at Norton and so far away from their families.

Inmates started four fires, took over prison offices, destroyed computers and even tipped over a medical response vehicle. The corrections officer estimates prisoners had control of the facility for about three hours. State troopers and corrections officers from three other prisons in central and western Kansas were called in to help.

On Wednesday, a Corrections spokesman said 90 Norton inmates who pose a “security challenge” would be transferred – many to Lansing.

A Lansing prison employee told McClatchy Newspapers that some maximum-security inmates were moved to medium security to accommodate the new inmates. So the solution to the Norton problem is to create the same problem at Lansing.

There are other issues. Guard retention became such a problem this summer at El Dorado that Gov. Sam Brownback traveled to the prison to announce immediate 10-percent pay increases for guards there. While a good public first step in easing the problem until the legislature convenes in January, it created yet another problem: Guards at other Kansas prisons didn’t receive the same pay increase.

It’s easy for most Kansans to read headlines about the state prison system and move on. They’ve never committed a crime, they’re not planning on committing one, and it’s someone else’s problem.

But it does affect your neighbor, who’s a prison guard. Or your friend’s brother, who is incarcerated and wants to finish his sentence quietly and safely. These people are in harm’s way of unruly inmates and can be victims of poor decision-making by prison officials.

Lawmakers know they can’t afford to look the other way when the 2018 legislative session begins. There will be many challenges when they reconvene, and a failing prison system is quickly making its way up the to-do list.

It’s not just about the system and how it’s run. There are more than 9,000 Kansas inmates, but many are in prison for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses. These are offenses that, in some cases, could be handled without prison time and instead with rehabilitation and monitoring. That would ease prison crowding and alleviate some of the staffing problems seen this summer at El Dorado and Lansing correctional facilities.

The entire system needs scrutiny even before January’s legislative session. Hearings need to begin as soon as the session begins. A Department of Corrections without news until then would be a relief.

  Comments