TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators from both parties called Friday for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to quickly increase pay for corrections officers at state prisons, arguing that a dangerous safety crisis is looming.
Staffing shortages and the potential for inmate unrest are serious enough that pay raises to attract and retain employees can’t wait until lawmakers convene in January, Republican Rep. J.R. Claeys said. Claeys, chairman of a House budget subcommittee on public safety, said the Legislature should meet by September to approve salary hikes.
Claeys has already proposed boosting officers’ pay by up to 20 percent. Lawmakers adjourned the 2017 legislative session in June after approving more modest pay raises of up to 5 percent for many, but not all, state government workers — and not specifically for corrections officers.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the Department of Corrections has the legal authority to grant raises — and should do so by 10 percent on Sept. 1. Ward said lawmakers could provide the extra money to cover the pay increases for a full year after reconvening in January.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, stopped short of publicly asking Brownback to call a special legislative session, but she said that she’s seeking more information from the department about its problems.
“The employment shortage and safety concerns legislators are just now learning about in our prisons are very disturbing,” she said in a statement.
The clamor for emergency action follows multiple inmate disturbances in recent months at the state’s maximum-security prison in El Dorado. While the department has reported no significant injuries to staff, legislators worry that more serious incidents could occur there or at other prisons.
“This is a crisis,” Ward told The Associated Press in a telephone interview after a news conference with other Democratic lawmakers outside the state’s oldest and largest prison in Lansing. “This is a really dangerous situation we have going on.”
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood has attributed the unrest at the El Dorado prison to newly arrived inmates transferred from other prisons and chafed at more restrictive rules. Ward said such transfers should stop for now.
Kansas prisons have struggled with staffing shortages for years because of the relatively low pay for corrections officers, which starts at $13.95 an hour. The annual turnover rate among uniformed officers is 33 percent, and 20 percent of those jobs were vacant as of Tuesday.
The figures are worse at the El Dorado prison, which began scheduling employees for 12-hour shifts in June. As of Tuesday, 23 percent of its uniformed-officer jobs were open — and its turnover rate is 46 percent.
Turnover rates are lower in nearby states where starting pay is better, including Colorado, Nebraska and Texas. In Iowa, where starting pay is 38 percent higher than in Kansas, the turnover rate is only 12 percent.
Norwood told a legislative committee Wednesday that he’s worried about the growing inexperience of the department’s work force caused by turnover. He acknowledged that inexperience and longer hours could cause officers to miss signs of potential trouble from inmates.
But he also said the disturbances at El Dorado were not tied to staffing issues because all security posts are filled.
The union representing corrections officers also has called for a special legislative session to boost their pay, but Norwood said, “I won’t say that it’s necessary.”
Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the governor does not anticipate calling a special session or taking the step Ward is proposing.
“There are challenges the department is working hard to address,” she said in a text message while traveling.
The Kansas City Star reported that a Department of Corrections official inadvertently forwarded an email to one of its reporters, advising a colleague to play down the possibility of a special legislative session because, “That gets very hairy and puts the gov office in a tight spot.”
But Willoughby later told AP that the official, department legislative liaison Jimmy Caprio, was not speaking for the administration and that “political consideration” did not play a role in the administration’s public safety policies. She added that Caprio was no longer with the department as of Friday.
Prison issues soon could fall to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a conservative Republican like Brownback. President Donald Trump has nominated Brownback to serve as U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and Colyer would become governor when Brownback stepped down.
“I would prefer that we get ahead of this,” Claeys said Friday. “It’s obvious, I think, to anyone who is watching that this situation is getting out of control or has gotten out of control.”
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