Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle has rejected a call for a special legislative session to address the growing safety problems in the state’s prisons.
Wagle said she had recently toured the El Dorado Correctional Facility, where guards and inmates have suffered through a summer of unrest.
“I witnessed, firsthand, the struggles at the prison,” she said, “and firmly believe the Department of Corrections and the state can move forward to address these concerns without a special session.”
We disagree. A special legislative session could bring an immediate and necessary focus to the ongoing challenges in all of the state’s prisons.
There would be much to discuss.
Staff shortages continue to plague the El Dorado prison, as well as the facility in Lansing. Guards in El Dorado have worked extra shifts this year, an unfair imposition on them and a threat to safety. More than 100 correctional officer positions remain unfilled in Lansing, a 15 percent staffing shortfall.
Wagle and other lawmakers have called on Gov. Sam Brownback to immediately raise salaries, which start at around $30,000 annually. He should do that, but it won’t be enough.
Kansas, like other states, will have to figure out how to recruit guards, train them and keep them on the job. Higher salaries are just one part of the equation. A safe work environment and opportunities for advancement must be offered to employees as well.
The state must also review its prison operations. During her visit, Wagle was told some of the disruption in El Dorado was a result of transfers to the facility, double-bunking and newly transferred inmates acting out because family members can no longer visit as frequently.
Meanwhile, a representative of a state employees’ organization recently compared Lansing with a powder keg, “ready to explode.”
In all of this, Brownback has shown a disturbing lack of urgency — a strange response because the governor has in the past demonstrated serious concern for the well-bring of those on the wrong side of the law. He has visited prisons and talked with inmates.
A special session would demonstrate a recognition that Kansas prisons are reaching a crisis point. Lawmakers could work quickly to increase compensation for guards, then consider additional measures to attract new employees. They may also wish to review operations of the state’s penitentiaries.
An email inadvertently forwarded to The Star suggested political considerations may be playing a role in the reticence to call a special session. That would be disappointing. Kansas cannot wait for a major incident before it takes action.
And a special session is needed to address a specific and urgent issue such as this — unlike Missouri’s wholly unnecessary special legislative session to consider abortion legislation.
Lawmakers need not wait for the governor to act. The state’s statutes allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session with the agreement of two-thirds of its members.
Legislators should draft and sign such a petition. A short special session to address prison unrest is overdue.