How many hints does the state of Kansas need before it recognizes just how troubled its state prison system is?
What else needs to happen before officials, including Gov. Sam Brownback, step in and demand change?
Maybe it’s a days-long riot with millions of dollars in damages and national embarrassment. The system appears that unhinged, that close to the edge when it comes to outright chaos and violence.
“Like a powder keg ready to explode,” is how Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, put it when he spoke to The Star the other day about the Lansing Correctional Facility.
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Stories about a system under extreme duress keep coming. There’s the account of 16-hour guard shifts at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. There are stories about dangerously high numbers of staff vacancies at Lansing, the state’s largest prison, where 116 openings on a staff of 682 were just reported.
And there are stories about an uprising lasting several hours at El Dorado in June when inmates reportedly controlled the gym, the yard and the kitchen. So dangerous was the situation that special response teams from prisons in Lansing, Hutchinson and Winfield were dispatched to assist. Last week came outright violence at El Dorado when two inmates were taken away from the facility for medical attention after altercations with other inmates.
Similar incidents have occurred at Lansing, including one July 7 when a half-dozen inmates engaged in a fight that left four with stab wounds and one with a punctured lung.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican.
The response from the state so far has been astonishingly tepid. Asked about state prisons, Brownback’s office issued a statement to The Star last week saying only that the governor was “pleased to sign” a budget that included pay raises for corrections workers.
That’s simply an inadequate response in light of the ongoing tensions. Obviously, Brownback now has his eyes on the road out of Kansas as he awaits the start of his ambassadorship. But much stronger leadership is needed to deal with this mounting crisis.
Fortunately, McGinn, who remains a key player in passage of the state budget, has indicated that the Legislative Budget Committee will meet Thursday to hear more about what’s roiling the system. Everything is on the table, she said.
Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka is calling for a legislative investigation of the recent disturbances at El Dorado, but that would take months.
Another Republican, state Rep. J.R. Claeys of Salina, said next year, he’ll push for increasing pay for corrections officers by as much as 20 percent. Starting pay of $13.95 an hour hasn’t resolved a persistent personnel shortage dating back years.
“We are understaffed, and that poses a risk not only to our corrections officers but to the public at large,” Claeys told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
These are good steps. But lawmakers need to add a dose of urgency to their reviews. Meantime, prison officials need to be more transparent about issues inside the system.
We understand there’s little sympathy for inmates among the public at large. But whether we like it or not, this is undeniably a state responsibility involving people convicted of committing crimes against the state. Officials need to wake up to that reality and take strong action before it’s too late.