TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas prisons face high staff turnover and potential inmate unrest at a time when state officials expect the population behind bars to continue growing steadily well into the future, potentially making current problems worse.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told legislators recently that he’s worried that high turnover — including 46 percent turnover at the maximum-security prison in El Dorado — is creating an inexperienced workforce. He blames low pay, starting at $13.95 an hour, for keeping open one in every five jobs for uniformed officers.
Legislators and the union representing the officers increasingly see a link between inmate unrest and staffing shortages and long hours for remaining employees. The El Dorado prison has seen multiple disturbances in recent months.
Kansas is certain to have more offenders in its custody over time. The inmate population has nearly doubled over the past generation to more than 9,900 last week, and the state’s official projections have it reaching 11,000 by 2027.
“My sense of it is, we’re not keeping up, not only with the numbers but the character of the folks that are being locked up,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican and a former state juvenile justice commissioner who is now chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.
The Department of Corrections boosted the prison system’s capacity 9 percent, to more than 10,500, by double-bunking cells across the prison system. The double-bunking includes maximum-security inmates at the El Dorado prison — where the capacity is now listed as 1,955 inmates, up 444 from a year ago. Following recent disturbances there, the actual population has been held under 1,800.
Norwood said some cells can’t be double-bunked because they’re too small. In the early and mid-1980s, the state worried less about that — double-bunking 5-foot by 8-foot cells at its Hutchinson prison — but faced a federal lawsuit, orders to release inmates early and court supervision of its decisions for nearly a decade, starting in 1987.
The department is pursuing a plan to replace the state’s oldest and largest prison in Lansing that would increase its capacity by about 200 beds. But the new prison might not open until 2021.
“We don’t have anything that would suggest the population is going to decrease,” said Scott Schultz, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, which makes inmate population projections and recommendations on criminal justice policy. “You have a choice of building new prisons, or engaging in sentencing reform or perhaps a mixture of the two.”
The American Civil Liberties Union responded to the unrest at El Dorado by last week calling on legislators to consider rewriting sentencing laws, particularly for drug offenders.
“But you’ve got to fight that perception that you’re somehow being soft on crime,” Jennings said.
Meanwhile, with corrections officers’ low pay, the annual turnover across the Kansas prison system is 33 percent. In neighboring states where the starting pay is higher, turnover is lower. The turnover rate in Iowa, for example, is 12 percent. Starting pay there is $19.32 an hour.
At El Dorado, 84 uniformed-officer jobs were vacant as of last week, or 23 percent. The prison began in June to schedule employees for four, 12-hour shifts a week, and is sometimes having officers end their work weeks with a 16-hour shift. On June 29, the date of one reported disturbance, the inmate population was approaching 1,900.
“These problems are going to be made worse,” said Robert Choromanksi, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing corrections officers.
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