TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas declared an emergency Tuesday at its most crowded maximum-security state prison over what Gov. Laura Kelly called “serious staffing shortages” inside a lockup that’s had multiple inmate disturbances over the past two years.
But Kelly acknowledged that the most immediate effect of the declaration — longer hours for workers — isn’t a real solution to staffing problems that continue to plague the El Dorado Correctional Facility. And the corrections chief who declared the emergency said the extended hours for staff probably can’t be sustained for more than a few months.
Interim Secretary Roger Werholtz told The Associated Press in an interview that the Department of Corrections is looking at having El Dorado employees work four, 12-hour shifts a week, instead of the typical schedule of five, eight-hour shifts. Also, he said, the department might try to attract new employees by offering them higher hourly pay without benefits. He also said it could consider contracting for private prison beds.
Kelly told a gathering of state employees that she also will pursue additional funding for the prison system and changes in sentencing laws that could lessen prison crowding. Her budget proposals include an additional $3 million for prison staffing.
“The shortage there is really a huge safety and security issue,” Kelly told reporters before speaking to dozens of government workers at the Statehouse. “This is not something anybody wanted to do, but it absolutely had to be done.”
The state declared an emergency at the El Dorado prison in June 2017, also because of staffing shortages, and employees sometimes worked 16-hour days for the rest of the year. Werholtz acknowledged Tuesday that requiring longer hours for an extended period of time can make it harder to keep officers.
Kelly met legislative leaders Tuesday morning to let them know the declaration was coming.
“I voiced my concern that I probably wouldn’t agree” with the longer hours for workers, said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Kansas City-area Republican.
Sarah LaFrenz, the president of the Kansas Organization for State Employees, which backed Kelly in the governor’s race last year, said the emergency declaration is only a temporary fix. Still, LaFrenz said the union is encouraged that Kelly is “taking this critical situation seriously.”
The move comes as neighboring states face problems in crowded prisons. Nebraska’s prison system faces a July 2020 deadline set by state lawmakers there to reduce prison overcrowding, but its director has acknowledged it probably will miss it. In Oklahoma, the state’s prisons director is seeking more than $800 million to build two new prisons.
In Missouri, GOP Gov. Mike Parson is proposing to consolidate a prison where a riot occurred last year with another facility in the same community, hoping that the savings can be used to boost officers’ pay.
Both Oklahoma and Nebraska have had deadly prison riots in recent years. While riots in Kansas haven’t caused inmate or staff deaths, the state has spent at least $414,000 repairing damage and replacing equipment from four riots at three prisons, including the one in El Dorado. A riot in July 2018 at the El Dorado prison, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Wichita, cost the state nearly $177,000.
The El Dorado prison reported Tuesday that it had 84 vacancies among its 360 uniformed officers. For the 12 months ending with June 2018, the turnover rate was almost 54 percent — by far the highest in the state prison system.
Werholtz said his declaration gives the department more flexibility, though he acknowledged that the department already is “working staff excessive amounts of time.” The department reported spending $8.2 million on overtime during its 2018 budget year, more than four times as much as it did five years before.
“At this point, I don’t see any other viable alternative for keeping the facility open and safe,” he said.
The state in recent years has boosted its starting pay for corrections officers to $15.75 an hour, but Werholtz said that’s still not competitive. The emergency declaration allows the department to boost that figure to $20.50 without benefits.
The prison’s population has risen over the past eight months, partly because the state is shifting inmates as it builds a new prison in Lansing to replace its oldest lockup.
The El Dorado prison held 2,029 inmates as of Monday, or 74 more than its declared capacity of 1,955 inmates — a number reset after former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration increased the number housed two-to-a-cell. The prison held an average of 1,854 inmates a day during 12 months that ended with June 2018.