Opinion

Opinion

Editorial: Act quickly on prison crisis

August 13, 2017

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback should act quickly to increase pay for corrections officers.

Increased pay is needed to help address safety at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The Department of Corrections has confirmed that three inmate disturbances occurred at the El Dorado prison in May and June and a pair of inmate-on-inmate stabbings on July 28. The violence is connected to a lack of adequate staff at the maximum-security prison.

The starting pay for most corrections officers is $13.95 an hour. That’s less than $30,000 per year to do one of the state’s most difficult and dangerous jobs. Many corrections officers don’t last long, given the working conditions and pay. The annual turnover rate among uniformed officers is 46 percent.

At the El Dorado prison, employees have been required to work four 12-hour shifts per week, and at times have had to work a 16-hour shift on the last day of their work weeks.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who is chairman of a House budget subcommittee on public safety, has urged Brownback to call a special legislative session to provide pay raises for uniformed corrections officers.

But others, including Senate President Susan Wagle, say a special session isn’t necessary, that Brownback can issue an executive order increasing officers’ pay.

Last week, Wagle toured the El Dorado facility with Republican Sen. Bruce Givens and Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood. Following the tour, Wagle said Brownback should take “executive action immediately” to bolster pay for corrections officers and improve staffing at El Dorado.

The calls for change are bipartisan. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, also has urged Brownback to give corrections officers raises effective Sept. 1. A 20 percent pay increase could cost the state $20 million, but Ward said lawmakers could add money to cover the extra costs in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the governor is working with Norwood to “examine and evaluate various options.” Let’s hope that evaluation doesn’t last much longer. The incidents at El Dorado this year indicate a crisis is brewing.

Brownback, expected to be confirmed soon to serve as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, should make one of his last acts as governor to act quickly and decisively to increase the pay of corrections officers and stabilize staffing at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

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