TOPEKA Vacancies among corrections officers increased at Kansas prisons in the final days of July with intensified scrutiny of inmate unrest at one maximum-security lockup and staff shortages throughout the system.
The state Department of Corrections reported Thursday that it had 268 vacancies in positions for uniformed officers in its eight prisons as of Tuesday, up about 13 percent from 236 on July 24. The increase of 32 left the state with a 13.2 percent vacancy rate in those jobs.
The department also saw a slight increase in vacancies for non-uniformed positions in the same period, to 49 from 47, for a new vacancy rate of 6.2 percent.
The vacancies in uniformed-officer positions increased at six of the eight prisons, including its three largest maximum-security facilities in Lansing, Hutchinson and El Dorado. The El Dorado prison has been the site of multiple inmate disturbances since May and it vacancies in uniformed officer jobs jumped to 84 from 73 on July 24.
"Basically, correctional officers are just very despondent and tired, and they are just giving up hope," said Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing the officers.
The department released the latest vacancy figures to The Associated Press in response to a request and hours before Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood faced questions from lawmakers during a meeting on budget issues.
Norwood told the AP on Wednesday that the department is having some success in recruiting new employees, despite relatively low pay for corrections officers. He said 16 new officers are being trained for the El Dorado prison.
The El Dorado prison in June began scheduling its employees for four, 12-hour shifts a week and then requiring some of them to work a 16-hour shift on the last day of their work weeks when staffing problems required it. Norwood formally declared a staffing emergency in response to a union grievance about the long shifts.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican, said legislators must consider increasing pay for corrections officers, which starts at $13.95 an hour and is blamed for much of the staffing shortages plaguing state prisons in recent years. One proposal is to increase the pay as much as 20 percent, though that could cost $20 million a year.
Waymaster also said scrutiny of the prison system's problems also could be hindering efforts to recruit and retain officers.
"When you have the media focusing on a correctional facility such as El Dorado and all these incidents — it seems like almost every day, there seems to be a new incident that pops up — it is going distract people from wanting at that particular position, not just in El Dorado," Waymaster said.