TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ corrections secretary acknowledged Wednesday that he called a staffing emergency at a maximum-security prison in response to a union grievance, a move that allows the state to require officers to continue working shifts up to 16 hours.
The El Dorado prison has experienced inmate unrest and has had several confirmed disturbances in recent months as it has struggled with staffing shortages. In June, it began to schedule its employees for 12-hour shifts, and Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said 16-hour shifts are sometimes necessary to ensure that all critical posts are staffed.
“It allows us to continue,” Norwood told The Associated Press in an interview, acknowledging the emergency was declared in response to the union’s grievance.
The department has confirmed three disturbances at the El Dorado prison in May and June involving inmates who refused to return to their cells, as well as a pair of inmate-on-inmate fights on July 28 that sent one prisoner from each altercation to a hospital. But department data obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request also shows a relatively high number inmate disciplinary reports on 14 other days over the past three months as well.
Officers are working four 12-hour shifts a week, rather than the traditional five eight-hour shifts. But in July, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents officers, learned that some of them were being required to stay an extra four hours on the last day of their work week, for a 16-hour shift.
The union then filed a grievance. It said while its bargaining agreement with the Department of Corrections allowed the 12-hour shifts, the longer ones violated it because the state had not “formally declared” an emergency. A declaration allows even longer shifts — up to 18 hours.
Norwood rejected the grievance Tuesday and in his four-page ruling cited staffing shortages as an emergency.
Robert Choromanski, the union’s executive director, said if the department felt staffing shortages were an emergency, it had chances to tell him before he filed the grievance and did not. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback — who appointed Norwood — would have the final say on any grievance, unless the union later filed a lawsuit.
“They waited, specifically, to avoid embarrassment, and they were being very underhanded with me,” Choromanski said.
Choromanski also said with an emergency declared, Brownback should call a special session of the Legislature to increase officers’ pay immediately. Lawmakers adjourned for the year in June.
Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the department is “actively” taking steps “to address staffing levels.”
Department data obtained by AP showed that for the past three months, an average of 14 inmate disciplinary reports were filed a day at the El Dorado prison. But the number spiked at more than 20 on 16 days, including two for which disturbances or inmate-on-inmate altercations were reported.
Norwood has attributed some of the unrest at the prison in El Dorado, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Wichita, to inmates who have been transferred there from other prisons and find the environment more restrictive. Also, while the daily population fluctuates, it increased from March to June.
The population reached 1,907 on June 22, and on that day, there were 39 inmate disciplinary reports filed — a three-month high. The population remained around 1,900 until early July, when it began dropping to the 1,740 inmates there Tuesday.
It and other state prisons have been plagued with staffing shortages because of the relatively low pay for uniformed corrections officers, which starts at $13.95 an hour. As of July 24, 73 uniformed-officer jobs were vacant at the El Dorado prison, or 20 percent of the total.
Norwood said scheduling employees for four, 12-hour shifts a week gives them more certainty than mandating unscheduled overtime. He said the department is training 16 new officers for El Dorado.
“We’re having some success in recruiting staff,” Norwood said.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com