Government & Politics

Amid problems in Kansas prisons, internal email shows a focus on politics

An email accidentally sent to a Star reporter showed the Kansas Department of Corrections focusing on how discussing a special session would put the governor’s office in a difficult position.
An email accidentally sent to a Star reporter showed the Kansas Department of Corrections focusing on how discussing a special session would put the governor’s office in a difficult position. tljungblad@kcstar.com

A Kansas Department of Corrections official advised his colleagues to downplay the possibility of a special session on the state’s troubled prisons because it would put the governor’s office in a difficult position, according to an internal email that was accidentally forwarded to The Star.

The Star had asked the agency Friday about Republican Rep. J.R. Claeys’ call for a special session to pass a pay increase for prison guards amid staffing shortages, incidents of violence and other recent challenges at the state’s prisons.

“I think we need to downplay special session,” Jimmy Caprio, the agency’s legislative liaison, wrote to a Corrections spokeswoman roughly 10 minutes after The Star had asked the question about a special session. “That gets very hairy and puts the gov office in a tight spot. Especially if Coyler takes office. His first act as gov would be to reconvene the legislature, where a tax increase would almost certainly be proposed, which Coyler hates.”

Caprio was referring to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon who will likely take over as the state’s governor in the near future if the U.S. Senate confirms Gov. Sam Brownback for a diplomatic post.

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, said in a text message later Friday that Caprio no longer worked for the Brownback administration.

“The administration evaluates, develops, and executes public safety policy based on facts and data — not political consideration. This individual did not speak on behalf of the administration and is no longer employed by the Department of Corrections,” Willoughby said.

“The Governor’s office remains dedicated to order and safety in the prison system, and continues to work closely with the Kansas Department of Corrections as they take active steps to address staffing challenges.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Friday that instead of changing the culture, the Brownback administration had fired the messenger.

“Jimmy’s sin was that he disclosed what they do every day,” Ward said. “Which is run cover-your-ass operations rather than deal with the issues facing the department, and his crime was letting that out in the public.”

Caprio, whose job was to serve as a conduit between lawmakers and the Department of Corrections, advised agency spokeswoman Cheryl Cadue in the email that “it would be ok to say we are open to all opportunities and look forward to working with both the legislature and governors office to find a solution” in regards to a separate Democratic proposal to enact a pay increase for prison workers through existing funds.

Caprio’s email was accidentally sent to a Star reporter. More than an hour later, the agency sent an official comment that made no mention of the possibility of a special session.

“We are in a job market that has become increasingly more competitive,” the statement said. “The Department of Corrections is supportive and appreciative of the commitment by Governor Brownback and of the Legislature to increase pay for correctional officers.”

In recent weeks, violent incidents at Kansas prisons have either been downplayed by the Department of Corrections or not disclosed to the public until the agency was questioned. In late June, a disturbance at the El Dorado facility was reported by the agency as being nonviolent, despite an emergency log book indicating otherwise.

(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.

During an appearance in Wichita earlier in the day, Colyer acknowledged that the state’s prisons face problems but didn’t weigh in on the call for a special session.

“There are a bunch of challenges in the prison system right now,” Colyer said.

“We want to work with the team on this. (Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood) has declared that we are going to work on these issues. And it’s not just one little thing — there are things there. And we’re committed to working with him.”

Caprio asked The Star not to publish the contents of his email and emphasized that it reflected only his opinion and not an official agency position.

“My email was just my opinion,” he said in a phone call. “It’s not an official position. It was just a piece of advice that I said. I didn’t even have feedback from the secretary.”

Norwood appeared Thursday before a legislative budget committee and faced a barrage of questions and concerns. Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the committee, said the agency should not put politics ahead of prison guards’ safety.

At the Lansing facility, multiple disturbances have occurred that the Department of Corrections did not initially report to the public. One of the more serious broke out in early July, when a half-dozen inmates were involved in an altercation. Four inmates suffered stab wounds, one had a punctured lung and two needed outside medical treatment.

McGinn said that double-bunking at the facilities is creating dangerous situations and that low salaries for guards are exacerbating the situation. A special session might not be necessary, she said, but state policymakers cannot wait until the Legislature returns in January to address the issue.

“We just don’t want this stuff to escalate,” she said.

Claeys, the Salina Republican who called for the special session Friday, said after being read the email that it “was an unfounded concern” because raises could be paid for without tax hikes.

“I think what would really put them in a tight spot is the injury or death of a corrections officer when we could have done something,” Claeys said of the governor’s office.

Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said he spoke with Caprio on Friday after an event at Lansing. Caprio, he said, stated that he wanted to work with the state workers union on achieving better pay for prison workers.

“He lied to me in front of me when he said his best interest was to see what we could do to improve correctional pay,” Choromanski said. “...This basically reflects everywhere in the Brownback administration where they put politics ahead of our state employees. … That’s how the Brownback administration plays.”

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said people need to be more concerned about solving the problem and not focusing on the politics of how it affects whoever is governor.

“It’s difficult enough to find solutions to this very serious issue without inappropriately laying politics on top,” she said. “I believe that’s what makes the public angry, and with good reason.”

Victoria Luby, the partner of a staff member of the El Dorado Correctional Facility, advocated for a special session to address issues in the prison system.

“The fact that Brownback is leaving and the state is such a mess ... I’m not sure there’s a lot of things that can wait until January,” she said.

Lansing Mayor Mike Smith said Friday morning that he’s lived in the community for decades, and he’s never seen issues at the prison like this before.

“This is a keg right now, waiting to go off,” he said.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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