Kansas prisons grapple with ‘dangerous’ staffing shortages

? During an incident in June, 10 prison guards at the Lansing Correctional Facility were injured when they were physically attacked by inmates. One reportedly had a small chunk of his forehead bitten off by an inmate.

In another incident at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility, a guard was stabbed 13 times with a plastic shank. One wound was so severe that it punctured one of the guard’s lungs.

Rebecca Proctor, interim director of the Kansas Association of State Employees, told a legislative committee last week that those are just a few examples of how state correctional officers are being put at risk because of critical staffing shortages in state prisons, shortages that she said are the direct result of low wages and poor working conditions.

“All Kansas adult correctional facilities are operating short-staffed,” Proctor told the committee. She said job vacancy rates in state prisons range from 10 to 20 percent at every facility.

“Recently at Topeka Correctional Facility (which houses female inmates), employees were told the facility would have no choice but to require workers to stay over for a second full shift – 16 hours on duty – because there was no one to relieve them,” Proctor said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the officers involved in incidents at Lansing and Hutchinson have chosen not to speak to the media about them. But he confirmed that job vacancy rates in the state prison system range from 10 to 15 percent at each facility, and he said low wages and dangerous working conditions are a big part of the problem.

“Being a correctional officer is a difficult and challenging job,” he said. “We can’t hire just anybody for the job. Every day, they face the challenge of working with inmates who’ve been deemed fit to be incarcerated for felony crimes, and the inmates do not have the best behaviors.”

Low wages, high competition

Proctor testified last week before the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits, which may consider legislation to standardize the pension benefits of Corrections Department employees.

But she said that before lawmakers look at pension benefits, they should first address the issue of wages, which she said are so low, few correctional officers stay in the system long enough to earn retirement benefits.

“Improving retirement benefits for correctional officers is a great goal, but retirement benefits are meaningless if employees cannot be retained on the job long enough to earn those benefits,” she said.

That’s especially true for officers at the state prison in Lansing, which is just a few miles away from a federal prison where the minimum starting pay is more than $39,000 a year, and can be as high as $51,702, depending on experience.

By comparison, the starting pay for a state correctional officer is $13.61 an hour, or about $28,000 a year.

“Many employees stay at Lansing long enough to gain some experience and training, and then make the move to the federal facility,” she said.

Proctor said the state also competes with county jails for employees because many of the jails also pay more than the state.

In Douglas County, for example, the starting pay for a jail officer is $15.19 per hour, or $31,595 per year, nearly 12 percent more than the state’s starting pay.

Proctor cited examples of correctional officers who struggle to make it from paycheck to paycheck. She said some have reported sleeping in their cars the last night or two before payday because they can’t afford the gas to commute to work. Others reported skipping meals at the end of a pay period to make sure their children have enough to eat.

Proctor said the Department of Corrections faces other funding issues that also put the safety of officers at risk.

“At many facilities, the radios don’t work,” she said. “Employees patrol and transport inmates in vehicles that are too old and run-down to be safely maintained. There are not enough anti-stab and anti-ballistic vests at the facilities. At Hutchinson, costs for uniform parts and utility belts have been shifted to employees.”

KPERS and budget issues

Proctor’s testimony sparked a sharp response from Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who also chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee. He suggested that if corrections officers want more pay, they may have to give up something in the form of retirement benefits.

“I think there’s some universal acceptance that we need to be paying our correctional officers more,” Masterson said. “I think where we hit an impasse with an organization like yours is there is an expense to a taxpayer-insured retirement system which creates a difficulty on the other side of that.”

He suggested that if the officers want more pay, they should consider volunteering to become unclassified employees, which would mean giving up their civil service protection, and then joining a new kind of retirement plan being launched next year that requires a smaller contribution from the state.

Proctor said she did not think most members of her union would accept that tradeoff, at which point Masterson questioned whether she actually represented the union members.

“You don’t represent the individuals. You represent an organization,” Masterson said.

“I represent a member-driven organization,” Proctor replied.

“But you would imply that they’re monolithic in their thought process,” Masterson shot back.

“I would say that we go with the will of the majority,” Proctor said, “so we did survey on this issue. And we have surveyed on the classified (versus) unclassified issue. And by and large, employees tell us they need the protections of the classified system.”

Meanwhile, Department of Corrections officials said they would just like to see some kind of “parity” in retirement benefits for the different classes of employees in that agency.

Correctional officers in adult prisons are now part of a special class within the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. They make slightly larger contributions out of their paychecks but are allowed to retire earlier than other KPERS members because the nature of their jobs tends to shorten their careers.

But parole officers and guards in the juvenile corrections system are part of the regular KPERS plan.

For years, many have suggested that correctional officers ought to be part of the separate Kansas Police and Firefighters pension system, which allows even earlier retirement but requires higher contributions from employees.

But Proctor said given the low wages currently being paid, most officers could not afford the higher contributions for the KPF system, even if it meant getting better retirement benefits.