Lansing The state employees union and the head of the Department of Corrections will conduct a series of meetings with prison employees to discuss safety concerns and improving working conditions, the union announced Wednesday.
Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz said such meetings are conducted regularly with prison staff, adding that he met with employees at El Dorado and Larned this month. The meetings will be with representatives of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the largest union of state employees.
"Frankly, we do this regularly," Werholtz said. "I'm not sure anything makes it different other than it is something that KOSE is promoting."
The first meeting will be Aug. 1 in Lansing, said Jane Carter, spokeswoman for the union.
"They have requested other meetings, but nothing has been scheduled. We want to see how this one goes," Werholtz said in a telephone interview from Indianapolis, where he is attending a conference.
Carter and union organizer Mike Hatcher told reporters that some employees don't believe they have had open discussions with Corrections Department officials and "our members wanted a neutral area do discuss their concerns."
"I may hear something from employees under these circumstances that I haven't heard in other meetings. That's possible. I don't know," Werholtz said.
Carter said two recent incidents at Lansing Correctional Facility, which has about 2,400 inmates, prompted a renewed focus on safety.
On July 3, a female employee working in the prison warehouse was cut repeatedly by an inmate with a box cutter. On July 18, an inmate escaped in a prison vehicle but was captured an hour later in Platte County, Mo. Carter said four female employees have been injured at Lansing in the past decade.
"The fact there have been two incidents in the last month speaks for itself. It's a difficult situation," she said.
Werholtz said such incidents are a concern but disagreed with a union news release calling it a "prison safety crisis."
"I think this is part of what life in prison is like, unfortunately. Sometimes employees get injured and even a single injury is too much," Werholtz said. "I'm not sure the two instances cited had anything to do with staffing levels."
High turnover, low pay
Corrections officers make up 63 percent of prison employees statewide. Their starting pay is about $25,000 a year and the annual turnover rate ranges from 16 percent to 34 percent, with an average of 25 percent at the eight prisons.
Werholtz agreed prison staffers are underpaid but noted the decision to increase pay rests with the Legislature. He said that three months ago there were about 65 vacancies among the 2,000 corrections officers positions.
"We are in the best shape we have been in for years, but the turnover is still high," he said. "My primary goal is to cut turnover and encourage people to stay longer."
He said two federal prisons and a private prison nearby pay more, as do several surrounding counties.
"What would happen is folks would come to work for us, get the experience and go to higher-paying jobs," Werholtz said.
Carter said many facilities also have insufficient staffing. For instance, during shift changes one officer could be responsible for guarding 15 inmates, although that ratio isn't constant, she said.
Negotiations coming up
Werholtz said staff-to-inmate ratios aren't a good way to determine appropriate staffing. A better way is to determine how many officers and staff are needed at a given post because demand varies from prison to prison.
"You recognize that the staff members are going to be off their post at various times and that is figured into the total number of people we will need," he said.
Hatcher said the union will start negotiating a contract for all state employees later this year. He said there's no link between the upcoming talks and the planned meetings.
"This is about the safety of the employees and the public. That's what these forums are for," he said.
The union was created in March when the boards of the Kansas Association of Public Employees and the Kansas branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees agreed to merge. It has about 10,000 members.