Government & Politics

Short-staffed Kansas prisons raise safety fears, cost taxpayers for overtime

The Kansas Department of Corrections has been reducing the inmate population at the Lansing Correctional Center to ease the burden on the staff there. As a result, Lansing’s sister facility in El Dorado has had to double-bunk all its cells to handle the influx of prisoners.
The Kansas Department of Corrections has been reducing the inmate population at the Lansing Correctional Center to ease the burden on the staff there. As a result, Lansing’s sister facility in El Dorado has had to double-bunk all its cells to handle the influx of prisoners.

Two of Kansas’ largest prisons are struggling to find enough workers, costing taxpayer dollars for overtime pay and, some say, jeopardizing security at the facilities.

The El Dorado and Lansing correctional facilities have about 200 staff vacancies combined. State officials have been moving inmates out of Lansing to alleviate pressure there, but that in turn has caused strain at El Dorado.

Corrections officers in El Dorado moved to 12-hour shifts this month.

A union representing prison workers and some lawmakers have expressed concerns about safety in the prison system after a number of inmates refused for several hours to return to their cell blocks at El Dorado in late June. Not long after that incident an inmate escaped from Lansing.

Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said he didn’t believe staffing levels had “any bearing” on the unrest at El Dorado.

Norwood said this week that “staff were able to resolve it peacefully, without any substantial violence of any nature,” but an emergency call log viewed by The Star indicates violence did occur and at least one inmate had a weapon.

Norwood acknowledged that the agency is having a harder time than in the past attracting applicants.

“We’re going to continue to man the security posts that are critical to the operations and critical to the safety and security of the facility,” he said.

“So what that means is obviously staff is working more overtime, more hours each day.”

And that overtime is costing taxpayers. The Kansas Department of Corrections spent more than $5 million on overtime during the recently completed 2017 fiscal year, according to the agency, with more than $2 million of that spent on Lansing alone.

The Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union representing state workers, has been publicizing what it believes are a high number of staff vacancies at the state’s prisons.

Staffing problems create unsafe conditions, the union says, and the tough working environment in turn makes recruiting workers even more difficult.

The extra work can put a strain on families, union executive director Robert Choromanski told The Star.

“They’re just feeling demoralized,” he said when asked about the situation for corrections officers. “They feel like the public takes them for granted.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the situation at Kansas’ prisons “just doesn’t feel right,” following the unrest in El Dorado.

“And I’m worried about where it’s going to go now because of the way that it seemed to be handled,” Kelly said. “‘Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong here,’ rather than, ‘We have a problem, and here’s what we plan to do.’”

Shifting prisoners and searching for workers

The corrections department has been transferring prisoners out of Lansing in an effort to reduce the burden on staff, Norwood said. Since early February, the inmate population at Lansing has dropped by more than 340. Meanwhile, El Dorado’s population has increased by about 260.

Choromanski said El Dorado has seen “mass resignations” recently. Up to a dozen workers have quit within the past two weeks to a month, he said. He points to the influx of prisoners from Lansing as a cause.

Norwood said the corrections department plans to reduce the number of inmates at El Dorado temporarily until it can hire more staff.

The agency had been double-bunking cells at several prisons in order to add capacity, resulting in 350 more beds at El Dorado, he said. The entire facility is now double-bunked.

With double-bunking, El Dorado has a capacity of 1,955. Lansing has a capacity of 2,405.

The number of staff vacancies has been on the rise.

As of July 5, Lansing had 105 vacancies and El Dorado had 94, according to the corrections department.

Lansing calls for a staff of more than 680, according to PowerPoint slides the department provided to lawmakers in March. The 2016 State of Kansas Workforce Report listed 483 positions for El Dorado.

Norwood said the economy is making recruiting workers more difficult. Previously, the agency competed for people looking for a job; now, he said, it must try to lure individuals who already have a job.

“In past years, there’s always been an ample applicant pool to keep new applicants coming in. This year, we are having to work much harder for that applicant pool,” Norwood said.

El Dorado Mayor Vince Haines said other area industries also sometimes struggle to find entry-level workers. He stressed that the community as a whole views the prison as an asset and that it offers good employment.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the salary is probably as high as what the job maybe demands and that may or may not play into it,” Haines said.

Starting pay at the facility is $13.95 an hour.

“Do you think any normal person would want to work in the prison for $13.95 cents an hour?” Choromanski said when asked about the staffing issues. “And have feces, urine, blood, sweat, bodily fluids, thrown at you? I wouldn’t. Would you?”

Some prison workers got raises this year after the Legislature approved a pay raise for state workers. Additional raises would likely take legislative action, Norwood said, but he held open the possibility that the department could increase some pay by finding efficiencies.

In late June, the agency sent mailers to more than 18,000 homes within a 60-mile radius of the El Dorado prison. It has seen an uptick in job inquiries since the mailing. El Dorado receives inquiries daily, he said.

“We’re upping our recruitment efforts at that location,” Norwood said. “So hopefully we will be able to address that issue in the next 90 days or so to alleviate some of the issues there.”

One lawmaker who focuses on prisons said additional raises for corrections workers could help solve the problem.

“Right now, I don’t disagree, the union is correct. There are not enough officers in the system and it is compromising security,” said state Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican.

Claeys said he sees the worst-case scenarios as injuries or the death of a corrections officer, or, a prison escape where the escapee commits some sort of crime.

He referenced an inmate who escaped from Lansing on June 30 when he drove a state vehicle away from the prison. The inmate, James Stewart, was captured later that same day.

The escape happened shortly after the unrest at El Dorado.

“That points to a problem,” Claeys said. “That points to a real big problem.”

Lansing project looms

The new prison Kansas plans to build at Lansing would reduce staffing needs and eventually save millions a year in payroll costs, the corrections department said.

The plan includes demolishing its medium security section, which houses hundreds of inmates.

A new prison would offer better conditions for both workers and inmates, the agency says. It would also be able to accommodate more prisoners while cutting the number of staff needed by nearly 300.

“Right now you have multiple buildings and you have long hallway structures,” Claeys said. “Modern facilities are designed in such a way that they can have a visual of all of that from a central location. They wouldn’t have to have staff on multiple levels.”

The reduced staff would save the state about $14 million a year. Norwood said staffing reductions would be accomplished through attrition.

“We will gain considerable efficiencies,” Norwood said.

The agency wants a contract in place this fall with a private company for the construction, and lawmakers have authorized a lease-purchase agreement and as much as $155 million in bonds to finance the project.

Demolition could begin this coming winter, Norwood said. Construction could take up to three years.

The Kansas Organization of State Employees has argued the state is moving inmates out of Lansing in anticipation of the demolition and construction.

Norwood said the moves are not directly related to the new prison project.

Lansing Mayor Mike Smith said he hopes a new prison will be welcomed if it gets built.

But he said other things need to be done to help the corrections officers there now, such as increasing pay.

“What they pay the correction officers right now is the reason they’ve got signs up everywhere trying to get somebody to come work for them,” Smith said. “Hopefully that’ll change because being a corrections officer … that’s a really thankless job.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw