The leader of Kansas’ corrections system confronted unease from lawmakers Thursday as new numbers showed a prison staffing shortage growing worse amid inmate violence and unrest this summer.
The legislative budget committee questioned Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood shortly after the department reported that the state’s prisons had 268 uniformed vacancies Tuesday, up from 236 roughly a week before. That’s nearly a 14 percent increase.
The uniformed vacancies represent the bulk of the department’s staff vacancies: 317 on Tuesday, up from 283 a week earlier.
Norwood admitted the corrections system was facing challenges recruiting staff, but he defended the security in Kansas prisons.
“All of our security posts, all of our posts providing safety and security to the facilities are filled, whether we’re filling those through regular staff or through overtime,” Norwood said after the hearing. “So we are not vacating any posts in our facilities that would cause a security risk.”
Concerns about the state’s prison system, which have grown throughout the summer from both lawmakers and a Kansas workers union, come as the state plans to build a new prison to help replace its aging Lansing facility. Lawmakers have also had questions about those plans.
Vacancies at Lansing, the state’s largest prison, hit 116 on July 24, with 88 of those openings for uniformed workers.
The figures released Thursday showed the prison with 90 uniformed vacancies among 115 total vacancies.
Empty posts also grew at El Dorado, one of the state’s larger prisons.
By Tuesday, El Dorado had 93 vacancies, including 84 uniformed staff. On July 24, El Dorado had 80 vacancies, with 73 of those for uniformed workers.
Norwood also was questioned about El Dorado Correctional Facility warden James Heimgartner’s leaving the Kansas prison for another job within the agency.
Norwood said Heimgartner’s skills could be better used in other capacities.
“Sometimes, just as you switch the coach of a sporting team, we felt that it was in the best interest ... in his career it was the right time to do this move,” Norwood said.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the agency had not been transparent enough with lawmakers about incidents of violence and unrest at El Dorado.
She referred to recent media reports, including an Associated Press story from July that reported earlier uprisings at the Kansas prison, in her criticism of the agency.
“It concerns me that we’re not getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth when it comes to this,” Kelly said. “And what I’d like you to know is that we’re your partners. You need us. But we also need you to be straightforward with us and tell us what’s going on, because we’re the ones you’re going to have to turn to for help. You need more money.”
The Kansas Organization of State Employees also said in a July complaint that some workers at El Dorado were being forced to work 16-hour shifts.
Norwood responded earlier this week and said the staffing situation at the prison is “an officially declared emergency.”
After hearing Norwood’s testimony, the union’s executive director, Robert Choromanski, said Thursday that “nothing has changed dramatically.”
“In the last month, it’s gotten worse,” he said of the situation.
Data provided to lawmakers Thursday showed the uniformed staff turnover rate at El Dorado for fiscal year 2017 was more than 46 percent, the highest in the state’s system.
Lansing’s turnover rate topped 37 percent.
“That’s just like burning, throwing money out the window,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat.
The workers union has pointed to pay as a cause of the prison issues. The starting pay for corrections workers at Lansing is $13.95 an hour, according to the Department of Corrections.
Additional information the agency provided to lawmakers showed the starting salary in Kansas lags well behind that in Colorado, Iowa and Nebraska, though it is higher than the pay for similar workers in Missouri and Oklahoma.
The pay is part of the situation, said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, but so are working conditions.
Norwood told lawmakers there is double-bunking within the system, and that includes maximum-security inmates.
“I don’t think it’s probably a good idea for people to be working 12- to 16-hour shifts in situations where we have people double-bunked in a very small facility,” McGinn said.
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman and Stan Finger contributed to this report.