TOPEKA — Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood acknowledged at a legislative hearing Thursday that his department was struggling to recruit corrections officers at El Dorado Correctional Facility but said recent uprisings at the prison have not stemmed from the staffing shortage.
At a meeting of the joint Legislative Budget Committee, lawmakers questioned Norwood over problems at El Dorado and KDOC’s plans to build a replacement for Lansing Correctional Facility, the state’s largest and oldest prison.
El Dorado Correctional Facility has been roiled in recent weeks by inmate uprisings while it grapples with a staffing shortage of more than 90 correctional officers and a high rate of turnover among officers. Norwood told lawmakers KDOC was struggling to recruit and retain officers, in part, because the position does not pay enough.
To compensate for the shortage, officers have had to work long hours, according to the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
The inmate population also has risen at El Dorado as inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility have been transferred. The prison had been full beyond its capacity for months, and the population has been rising since September, though it has ticked down so far this month. The prison also added 444 beds last month to bring its population within capacity, according to data from the department.
“We have double-bunked in several institutions,” Norwood said.
Norwood said that included maximum security inmates.
Staffing El Dorado
Part of the staffing problem, Norwood said, comes from the prison’s low wages, which make it hard to compete with other area employers for workers. Starting correctional officers are paid $13.95 per hour. Norwood said in his presentation to lawmakers that correctional officer pay is less than that at some sheriff’s departments and county correctional facilities and the federal prison in Leavenworth. He said that’s also less than correctional officers in neighboring states make that have less severe turnover rates.
As of Aug. 1, the El Dorado prison had 93 job vacancies, up from 80 on July 24, according to data released by the Department of Corrections. Norwood said 21 officers left the prison in July. Of those, he said five officers retired, seven left for other jobs, three moved out of the state, two transferred to other KDOC facilities, two left for medical reasons and two were fired.
Norwood said the department was struggling to recruit because job-seekers have other options.
“We are recruiting for people that currently have a job, rather than people who are actively looking for a job, which makes recruiting more difficult,” Norwood said.
Between July 2016 and June 2017, El Dorado had a 46-percent turnover rate, the highest of any prison in the system, according to KDOC. Democratic Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, of Kansas City, noted that drives up the department’s hiring and training costs.
“That’s just like burning or throwing money out the window,” Wolfe Moore said.
Kansas Organization of State Employees Executive Director Robert Choromanski has said the prison’s correctional officers have been forced to work long hours to compensate for the understaffing. The union filed a grievance last month over forced 16-hour shifts. The Department of Corrections on Tuesday then declared the staffing levels an official emergency, which allows the prison to require officers to work up to 18 consecutive hours.
That emergency status can last indefinitely.
“KDOC has been trying to save face and embarrassment by forcing our hard working correctional officers under the radar into working these extra, unsafe and long hours,” Choromanski said in an email Tuesday.
Norwood said the amount of mandatory overtime the department has used to staff the prison has decreased in the weeks since officers started working 12-hour shifts.
Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly questioned the wisdom of the department’s movement of inmates to El Dorado Correctional Facility early in the process of developing and building a new Lansing Correctional Facility.
“I just think that given that you’ve got staffing issues at El Dorado and have for a while, that maybe this was not the time to be transferring so many of these harder-to-handle folks down,” Kelly said.
Kelly said she had heard the problems at El Dorado have arisen specifically from moving inmates.
Norwood said the move helped balance the number of maximum security inmates housed at Lansing, El Dorado and Hutchinson Correctional Facilities.
“We’ve more evenly divided those between the three facilities so that we can better manage that population, spread out between more of the facilities,” Norwood said.
Though he acknowledged the staffing problems, Norwood said the shortage did not have “any bearing” on recent disciplinary problems because all the prison’s security posts were filled, but he said officers’ inexperience and increased workload could have contributed.
“All of our security posts were manned, whether it be for a regular shift or an overtime shift, so there was not a lacking of staff in the facility,” Norwood said.
Norwood said it was possible inexperienced officers or those who have worked overtime could have missed problems that led to uprisings.
Security posts might be manned by someone, but that manpower has decreased, Choromanski said. He said control towers that previously have had two guards now have one.
Choromanski said officers had told him that “even if all the posts are manned, it’s manned to the barest minimum and that there’s no sufficient backup in case something happens for someone to cover them.”
Kelly also questioned the timing of the department’s decision to move former El Dorado warden James Heimgartner to a job in Topeka. According to the Associated Press, Heimgartner stepped down July 27.
“Sometimes just as you switch the coach of a sporting team, we felt it was in the best interest of the facility,” Norwood said.
Lawmakers also questioned Norwood over requests for proposals issued by the Department of Corrections for bids to build a new Lansing facility. A legislative audit released this week determined that having a private company build the prison, lease it to the state for a number of years and then sell it back to the state would be more expensive to the state than would be issuing bonds and building the prison through the state.
Norwood said the department would look at the prices it gets for the two options through the bid process.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.