Government & Politics

El Dorado prison standoff came amid dozens of vacant staff positions

Dozens of staff positions sit unfilled at El Dorado Correctional Facility, where inmates set fires and smashed windows in an uprising on Sunday.

The prison is holding about 100 more inmates than it did during significant disturbances a year ago. El Dorado's population of 1,998 is also nearly 150 inmates larger than the prison's average daily population over the past year.

Meanwhile, the prison had 77 open positions as of last week. El Dorado is supposed to have about 483 full-time workers, according to a state data book.

On paper, the prison appears to be operating above capacity. KDOC's population reports put the prison's operating capacity at 1,955.

But Samir Arif, an agency spokesman, said Monday that the prison's actual capacity is 2,078 and it is not over capacity. He indicated the population report was in error and attributed it to a technical problem.

KDOC typically posts near-daily population reports on its website. After The Eagle inquired about the prison's capacity, the reports were no longer available online Monday afternoon. Arif said the agency had removed them, citing the error.

Regardless of the facility's capacity, the prison’s current population is well above its average population over the past year. Between July 1, 2017, and June 29, 2018, El Dorado had an average daily population of 1,854.

Arif said the prison’s population had been generally stable, though he noted inmates are moved throughout the corrections system every day.

Regarding Sunday’s disturbance, Arif said an incident review board will convene to assess what had happened, but he didn’t know when that would happen.

The Eagle sent several questions to Arif, asking what specifically caused Sunday’s disturbance as well as what conditions may have played a role more broadly. He said only that those questions “will be answered by the investigation.”

The Sunday incident echoed a series of incidents last summer at El Dorado and other state prisons. The upheaval eventually spurred pay raises for corrections officers.

“It’s about this time last year when we started to have significant issues, specifically with El Dorado and other places, with disturbances in the prison,” said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

Around noon on Sunday, inmates refused to leave the prison yard and started fires, the Department of Corrections said. The inmates began surrendering about four and a half hours later, and the fires were extinguished early in the evening.

LaFrenz said one person who was working at the prison at the time of the incident told her the disturbance began when an inmate in the yard wouldn’t comply with directions, prompting corrections officers to restrain and move the inmate.

LaFrenz said the worker told her that windows were destroyed and that a building was set on fire.

Arif confirmed that inmates caused fire and window damage, though he said the agency is still investigating and didn’t provide specifics. He said it was too early to place a cost estimate on the damage.

El Dorado doesn't have as many vacancies as it did last summer, but the figure remains high.

On July 5, 2017, the prison had 94 open positions. As of June 25, 2018, it had 77.

"From what I can tell, we're still struggling with staffing places completely," LaFrenz said.

Disturbances at El Dorado in May and June 2017 resulted in a state audit, which found that the prison’s population had increased significantly during the 2017 fiscal year, with numerous inmates coming from Lansing Correctional Facility. Those transfers were made in part because of staff vacancies at Lansing.

The audit found that one incident was the result of a conflict between rival gangs and failed security protocols. Another was spurred by a sudden change in shower schedules.

In August 2017, then-Gov. Sam Brownback raised the pay of all corrections officers, with El Dorado employees receiving a 10 percent increase.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006