Lockdowns, fights and dangerous staffing levels: Being a correctional officer is a tough job.
Thousands of Kansans across the state enter correctional facilities each and every day to ensure the safety of prisoners and the community. They serve the public day in and day out but make little money and their pensions are inadequate. Public employees who put their lives in danger when they go to work should be adequately compensated, which includes good benefits and health care. Period.
This year, correctional officers received an adequate raise which was years in the making. Gov. Kelly understands our officers have been underpaid for years and a raise was much needed. Many of the state’s prisons, including the juvenile facility in Topeka and the state’s mental health facilities are severely understaffed. In some cases, officers are required to monitor up to three cell blocks by themselves.
Not only is this practice dangerous for officers, but it’s downright dangerous for prisoners as well.
A correctional officer’s primary duty is safety and security. When you have officers who are overworked and underpaid, that safety and security is threatened. On a daily basis, in prisons across our state, lockdowns occur. These lockdowns take place due to a fight or other circumstances, such as an escape. During the lockdowns, officers are required to stay at the prison for the duration, which can be as long as 16 hours. Wardens and supervisors, who are trying not to violate any regulations, will often play a big shell game by moving officers around the prison, while understaffing other priorities.
When staff are strained, overworked and not receiving reasonable benefits, retention is a major issue. Without good people on the job, prisons become more unsafe and that threatens the officers’ security and the community in which the prison is located.
Although the raise for officers was imperative, it is just the first step in making sure correctional officers are compensated fairly. This year, the Keeping the Kansas Promise coalition, as well as other organizations, attempted to move correctional officers from the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS) to the Kansas Police and Fire Retirement System (KP&F). This would have provided correctional officers with a better pension, on par with many surrounding states who treat their correctional officers like other safety officers in their communities.
Urging legislators to finalize this move will be one of the coalition’s main priorities during the 2020 legislative session. Additionally, our coalition believes that correctional officers’ pay and benefits should be analyzed each and every year to make sure the state is keeping up and staying competitive.
Making sure that correctional officers are fairly compensated for their work will better the state’s recruitment and retention efforts. Since our state’s facilities are so understaffed, lawmakers need to be sure we’re doing everything we can as a state to ensure we’re recruiting highly qualified officers and retaining our best. Moving all current and future correctional officers to KP&F from KPERS will be a great second step in reforming our state’s prison, mental health and juvenile facilities.
We urge lawmakers to learn as much as possible about the issues plaguing our state’s facilities. We need to do better at listening to our correctional officers and we need to make sure they are fairly compensated for their work.
Michael Scribner is the president of Keeping the Kansas Promise.