Guest Commentary

Kansas correctional officers’ work is demanding. Here’s how the state can help

Jon Wesley O’Hara, a correctional officer at Topeka Correctional Facility
Jon Wesley O’Hara, a correctional officer at Topeka Correctional Facility

I’ve been a correctional officer at Topeka Correctional Facility for four-and-a-half years. Whenever I start a shift, I have a ritual I go through to determine what kind of a day it will be.

If I’m assigned to a pod or a living unit, I have to figure out what has happened since my last shift. Who is having issues with whom? Were there any fights? Who has been written up and for what? Is someone acting out, acting differently, or even more violent than usual? These and many other factors need to be taken into account to ensure both my own safety and the safety of the inmate population.

Law enforcement runs in my family. My father was a cop for many years, as well as an investigator for the state of Kansas. I understand the importance of protecting others. This is a tough job, but across the state, correctional officers like me go to work every day because we know that we can make a positive impact on the lives of the inmates we work with.

This June, correctional officers received their first substantial raise in many years. While this raise has provided some relief for me and my family, the state of Kansas needs to do more in order to recruit and retain correctional officers. On a daily basis, correctional officers put themselves in harm’s way armed with nothing more than a radio and a set of handcuffs.

The stress of the job means we look forward to shorter life expectancy, higher rates of suicide and the potential for life-threatening injuries. We strain ourselves mentally and physically to keep our communities safe. This strain is felt by officers, but even more so by our families. We work with violent offenders, some of whom can and do mean to do us harm if given the opportunity. This work changes you and how you interact with others. Oftentimes we are not the people we were before the job.

There are things that the state of Kansas can address to recruit and retain quality correctional officers:

We must have a consistency of work without the fear of mandatory overtime. Far too often correctional officers are forced to work 16-hour shifts to cover posts. These stretches of overtime put large amounts of stress on officers and their families. It is also extremely difficult to maintain good security protocols when you are worked to exhaustion. This puts everyone at risk, as well as costing the state millions in overtime costs.

Our insurance plans are terrible. I am on the state health insurance, yet for all I pay, I have no prescription drug coverage. This puts a tremendous financial burden on me, and our raise does not cover those expenses.

Lawmakers need to explore moving correctional officers into KP&F, the Kansas Police and Firemen’s Retirement System pension plan, instead of where they are now in the main KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. This move would place correctional officers with other public safety positions such as police officers and firefighters. It would also help shore up KP&F’s funding.

Finally, we need more training for officers. When new officers begin at Topeka Correction Facility, they are given one day of training in self-defense during their basic training. During annual training, only four hours are devoted to teaching self-defense techniques. We work hands on with a population that grows more violent. We do so with no weapons. At our prison, line staff does not even carry pepper spray. We must increase our self-defense training times for our own safety as well as that of our fellow staff and even the inmate population.

These four steps are a good start to ensuring correctional officers across the state are treated with respect and dignity. Making these necessary changes would also help the state recruit and retain the absolute best people. It would make sure that our officers, our facilities, our inmate population and the communities surrounding them are safe and secure.

Jon Wesley O’Hara is a correctional officer at Topeka Correctional Facility.

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