TOPEKA — Staffing temporarily fell below minimum levels for at least one Kansas prison this week, days after the Kansas Department of Corrections director claimed all security posts there were manned.
Such shortages can mean reduced access for inmates to various parts of the prison, such as the library or yard, a KDOC spokesman said. The spokesman could not comment on specific staffing shortages for specific days.
Part of a logbook from El Dorado Correctional Facility obtained by the Topeka Capital-Journal showed a deputy warden was notified the facility would be four staff members short of minimum staffing levels between 10 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday.
Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees union representing corrections staff, said that signifies critical posts were left vacant. He said in an email he has been told Lansing Correctional Facility was forced to go without five optional staff members Saturday. Choromanski said it wasn’t the first time a prison had to go without those optional posts.
KDOC spokesman Samir Arif said all “critical areas of the prison” have been fully staffed. He said KDOC Secretary Joe Norwood’s comments last week that all of El Dorado’s security posts were manned “remain accurate.”
“Certain activities may be cut back based on staffing needs, but the critical areas have been and will be fully staffed,” Arif said.
He said those activities might include inmates’ time in the library or yard, and that staff might slow down the number of inmates going through lines for food.
Norwood repeatedly said all security posts at the El Dorado facility were filled and staffing levels didn’t have “any bearing” on recent uprisings at El Dorado. This week’s possible shortage at El Dorado came several days after Norwood’s comments, and it isn’t clear whether such a shortage has happened before.
“All of our security posts — all of our posts providing safety and security to the facilities — are filled, whether we’re filling those through regular staff or through overtime, so we are not vacating any posts in our facilities that would cause a security risk,” Norwood said after being questioned by lawmakers on the Legislative Budget Committee.
Norwood has acknowledged the prison has a large number of relatively new officers who could have a more difficult time keeping inmates under control. More than 46 percent of El Dorado’s uniformed staff members turned over between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, according to a department document. That number has risen from 21.6 percent five fiscal years ago and is now higher than most surrounding states. The document also reported more than half of the correctional officers in the Kansas prison system have fewer than two years of experience.
“Secretary Norwood pledged that he would be more transparent with the Legislature, so it is sad to see this repeat itself again,” Choromanski said in an interview.
El Dorado Correctional Facility has been the site of several uprisings and stabbings in recent weeks as it grapples with a staffing shortage. The prison averaged more than 14 disciplinary incidents each day between May 1 and July 31, according to data from the Department of Corrections. Those cases reached a peak of 39 on June 22, a week before a long uprising at the prison reported by the Associated Press. The number of incidents was lower in July.
Arif said he wasn’t aware of any significant uprisings in the past few weeks, but he said “altercations are not uncommon” in prisons.
El Dorado had 91 total vacant staff positions as of Thursday, Arif said. That’s down from 93 on Aug. 1. He said Lansing had 117 vacancies.
The prison system in early July started requiring officers to work 16-hour shifts to cover the vacancies, drawing a grievance from the Kansas Organization of State Employees. Choromanski said Aug. 1 that KDOC declared the staffing levels an emergency, which allows prisons to require officers work up to 18 hours.
Choromanski said Lansing Correctional Facility, to address the shortage, has started hiring part-time workers who are paid more per hour than full-time staff.
“The problem is that it’s just a short-term fix,” Choromanski said. “It’s not a long-term fix.”
Arif confirmed part-time employees are working at Lansing and said they are exclusively retired staff members with the same level of training as full-time guards. He said they are paid based on their previous rank.
Choromanski repeatedly has called for a special session of the Legislature to raise pay for officers. He said a push from House Democrats for KDOC to give staff a 10-percent pay raise was “a good start,” but he said it wasn’t enough to make up for increases in health insurance premiums.
According to data from the Department of Corrections, officers’ annual gross pay before taxes and after paying for health insurance declined more than $3,300 from 2015 through 2017 and will decline another $632 next year.
“In essence, it’s not a pay raise,” Choromanski said. “It’s more like a pay cut, and it’s a slap in the face for hard-working state employees.”
Democrats made their push at a news conference last week, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, urged Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to take action on an unspecified pay raise in a statement released Wednesday. Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, has called for a special legislative session to increase pay.
Arif said KDOC was working with the Brownback’s office on options to “address officer pay concerns.” Brownback’s spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said in a statement Wednesday the governor’s office was working on options to address the problems, but she didn’t mention pay.
A KDOC staff member also is “no longer employed” by the department after discussing the political ramifications of a special session in an email that apparently inadvertently was sent to a reporter for the Kansas City Star.