TOPEKA, Kan. — A Kansas legislator who heads a budget subcommittee on public safety says he’ll push next year to increase pay for corrections officers by as much as 20 percent in the wake of an inmate uprising last month at a state maximum-security prison.
The proposal from Rep. J.R. Claeys, of Salina, drew praise Wednesday from the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, but the union leader and other lawmakers said working conditions across the prison system also remain a problem.
Claeys, a conservative Republican, is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that reviews the budget for the Department of Corrections and its prisons. He said he would seek a 15 percent to 20 percent pay hike for uniformed corrections officers, which could cost as much as $20 million a year. Lawmakers adjourned their annual session in June and reconvene in January.
State prisons have struggled with staff vacancies for years, but the issue has gained new urgency since the June 29 disturbance at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, in which inmates refused to return to their cells and took control of parts of the prison for part of the day. Officers also told The Associated Press that two other disturbances occurred, one each in May and June.
“We are understaffed, and that poses a risk not only to our corrections officers but to the public at large,” Claeys said during an interview.
The department said that as of Monday, 236 of its 2,029 uniformed-officer positions in state prisons were vacant, about 12 percent. The vacancy rate is higher at the prisons in El Dorado and Lansing, 20 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
The El Dorado prison moved in June to 12-hour shifts until at least September, and the Kansas Organization of State Employees filed a grievance last month saying some officers were being required to work 16-hours shifts. Robert Choromanski, the union’s executive director, said while Lansing’s officers aren’t facing extended shifts, some are working enough overtime that “it already feels like they’re working 12-hour shifts” and they tell him morale is low.
Choromanski said inmates are watching for low staffing and ready to take advantage of it. He said disturbances like the ones at El Dorado are possible elsewhere.
Spokesman Todd Fertig said retaining staff “is a priority that we take very seriously.”
“Prison is inherently an environment with risks,” he said in an email, adding that experienced employees make the risks “more manageable.”
Fertig said other job opportunities, particularly for Lansing’s employees, are “real and attractive.”
Starting pay for corrections officers is $13.95 an hour. According to the state Department of Labor, the average wage was $24.49 in Leavenworth County, where the Lansing prison is located. It is $18.79 in Butler County, home to the El Dorado prison. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average hourly wage in May 2016 for corrections officers was $16.41 in the Kansas City area and $16.60 in the Wichita area.
“The solutions need to be aimed at solving our problem with recruitment and retention,” Claeys said.
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