Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback took his own sweet time, but on Thursday he finally got around to doing what needed to be done: increasing guard pay in state prisons.
Visiting the El Dorado Correctional Facility, Brownback set about defusing the powder keg that has become the corrections system, now beset with prisoner unrest, guard shortages, a dangerous culture and low pay.
The governor outlined a plan that will boost starting pay for uniformed officers across the state by a modest 5 percent to $14.66 an hour.
At El Dorado, where turnover has reached an astronomical 46 percent, Brownback said entry-level pay would bounce from $13.95 an hour to $15.75. A majority of uniformed staff at El Dorado will get bumps of at least 10 percent.
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“This job is an exceptionally difficult one — and the state appreciates their sacrifices,” Brownback said in a statement.
But Brownback’s plan creates pay disparities between prisons. That could prove problematic. So could the fact that non-uniformed staff, including counselors, weren’t included.
For now, Brownback’s announcement appears to end the need for a special legislative session to raise pay.
This amounts to a good start on an issue that has lingered too long. Brownback noted correctly that “addressing recruitment and retention will require commitment from the Legislature” in 2018.
Whether the increases result in a needed burst of hiring to fill the hundreds of vacancies that now plague the department remains to be seen, especially given Kansas’ unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. That’s the lowest it has been in a decade, which means that attracting workers is all the more difficult. The pay increases would merely put Kansas in the middle of the pack for corrections officer pay, based on a study of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Some lawmakers already question whether the boost is big enough.
In some ways, Kansas’ struggles with its prisons mirror the challenges that Jackson County has faced with its downtown jail. There, the problems of an overcrowded facility are compounded by an ongoing guard shortage that has created its own dangers. County legislators are considering a bump in starting pay from $12.60 an hour to $18 or even $20 an hour to make wages competitive.
According to the Mid-America Regional Council, the average minimum pay for corrections officers in the metro is $14.75 an hour. Johnson County pays $17.50, while Wyandotte County pays $18 to start. Leavenworth County offers $16.98 an hour, while a guard at Truman Medical Center starts at $19.75 an hour.
A lower wage in a more rural part of Kansas might still prove attractive. But if it doesn’t, lawmakers should move quickly next session to boost wages even higher.
It’s too easy to overlook workers who toil in state prisons. We do that at our peril.