Government & Politics

Amid summer of trouble, Brownback gives pay raises to workers at state prisons

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced pay increases for the state’s correctional officers on Thursday at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced pay increases for the state’s correctional officers on Thursday at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. Wichita Eagle

Amid staffing shortages and disturbances in Kansas prisons, Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday that corrections officers at the state prison in El Dorado will receive a 10 percent pay raise while officers at other prisons will get a 5 percent bump.

“This is a first step,” Brownback said.

The governor made the decision at a time of high staff turnover at the prison and mounting scrutiny of multiple episodes of inmate unrest this summer. The state has declared the staffing shortage at El Dorado an emergency.

“Addressing recruitment and retention will require commitment from the Legislature, and I encourage them to work with the Department of Corrections in the 2018 legislative session,” Brownback said at a news conference at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

The raises, which will be paid for within the existing state budget, are scheduled to go into effect later this month. The state must first confer with the union that represents the officers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

Entry-level pay at El Dorado will rise from $13.95 to $15.75 an hour, or almost 13 percent, according to Thursday’s announcement. Guards currently making less than $15.75 also will get raises, meaning most guards will receive raises of at least 10 percent.

Entry-level pay at all other facilities will rise to $14.66 an hour.

“We believe this is a good first step toward providing the resources that Kansas corrections officers need and deserve to do their essential work of keeping our prison facilities secure and our communities safe,” said Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, in a statement about the announcement.

However, he added, “we are also keenly aware that further steps will be necessary to really solve the department’s operational problems.

“Today’s announcement provides a raise for corrections officers, but it leaves out non-uniformed staff who are also critical to the department’s mission, including corrections counselors, building and maintenance technicians and many others,” the statement continued.

Two of the state’s largest prisons, El Dorado and Lansing, both have high numbers of unfilled positions. As of Monday, El Dorado had 94 openings and Lansing had 109.

In total, Kansas Department of Corrections facilities had 314 vacant positions, down slightly from the 317 the agency reported for Aug 1.

Among lawmakers, the pay raise drew both cautious praise and concern because it will create unequal pay rates between prisons.

Earlier this month, a group of House Democrats advocated for the Corrections Department to increase officers’ pay by 10 percent on Sept. 1, while Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, has called for a special session to increase pay.

Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, was among the House lawmakers who called for a pay increase. He said he has constituents who are prison workers at Lansing.

“It is a step in the right direction, but it’s not really enough,” Pittman said Thursday. “We called for 10 percent at a minimum. And we are getting 5 percent here, but I don’t think El Dorado should get 10 percent and Lansing ... get only 5 percent, to be honest.”

Claeys echoed Brownback in calling the raises a good first step but said more needs to be done. He expressed concern that pay levels would not be equal among the prisons.

“It’s absolutely not ideal and when we go back in January, the task will be to get everyone to the baseline of 10 percent,” Claeys said.

Choromanski appeared to agree in his statement: “The Governor is applying a quick fix to a systemic problem.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, had called on Brownback to make a pay boost through executive action.

She said in a statement Thursday afternoon that she looked forward to working with the Kansas Senate “to ensure our state law enforcement officials receive the support they deserve.”

“Too often our law enforcement does not get the respect and recognition they deserve for their service to our communities,” Wagle said. “This pay increase is long overdue and a step in the right direction.”

Information released by the corrections agency also showed that in the last fiscal year, El Dorado had a uniformed staff turnover rate of more than 46 percent and Lansing experienced turnover of more than 37 percent.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said Thursday she was concerned that Lansing officers were getting only half as big a raise as officers at El Dorado, noting that the Lansing prison has “some very serious problems.”

“This could cause more problems than it fixes,” Kelly said. “And I say that because one, I’m not sure it’s enough at El Dorado and I know it’s not enough for Lansing and Hutch. Anytime you create inequities among a class of employees, you create huge problems.”

Scrutiny of the prison system began building in June when the Corrections Department announced it would place corrections officers at El Dorado on 12-hour shifts in response to short staffs. Then, on June 29, inmates refused to go back in their cell houses for hours. The agency said the incident was resolved peacefully and without violence, but a log book indicated violence occurred.

Disciplinary cases at the prison have surged this year, according to data obtained by McClatchy through a records request. As of mid-July, the prison had more than 2,400 disciplinary cases this year — on track to surpass the 2,841 cases at the facility in all of 2016.

The Corrections Department transferred inmates among prisons this spring. The agency has said it is trying to balance the number of maximum-security inmates among its three largest prisons: Lansing, El Dorado and Hutchinson. The move comes while the state plans to build a new prison in Lansing.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw