TOPEKA – The Kansas Department of Corrections secretary said shifts of 12 hours or more required of uniformed officers at El Dorado and Lansing jails over the past 18 months due to an inability to recruit and retain employees are pushing workers to a breaking point.
Secretary Jeff Zmuda said extended shifts, mandatory overtime and little prospect of workload relief were reducing the dedicated employees who stayed with the agency despite salaries that couldn’t match offers in neighboring states. He told Kansas House members it was imperative that fallback financial incentives remain in place or risk a surge in job offers. Job vacancies in Kansas state prisons hovered around 380 for uniformed officers, including nearly 100 at El Dorado and Lansing prisons.
“I’m afraid we’ve been driving them hard and have been driving them for so long that we risk reaching a breaking point with many of them,” said Zmuda. “They can only do so much.”
He said the Department of Corrections closed units and mothballed 1,600 inmate beds to allow for redeployment, but the vacancy rate among uniformed officers across the prison system averaged 21%. Four of the state’s correctional facilities had vacancy rates above 25%. The state juvenile hall had a uniformed officer vacancy rate of 38%, which Zmuda said was “too high”.
Traditionally, the Department of Corrections has focused on inmate bed capacity when dealing with the agency’s budget. The system has a maximum of 10,200 beds and has currently served 8,700 inmates. The budget benchmark has shifted, Zmuda said, to the number of officers in their posts and the sections of prisons that could be staffed. The inmate population is growing and the state may be in a position to contract with county jails or out-of-state private prison companies to absorb the overflow, she said.
The state corrections department has struggled for years to recruit qualified candidates and has typically failed to compete with other employers in terms of salary, work hours and matters related to issues related to a prison job, Zmuda said.
The job of a corrections officer has taken a toll in life expectancy and higher rates of divorce, obesity, depression and anxiety, he said.
“Our people witness, participate, hear things that are hard to get out of their minds,” the corrections secretary said. “It’s tough stuff. They are first responders to someone who is in bad shape and it is traumatic for them.
Gov. Laura Kelly has recommended that lawmakers pass a 5 percent raise for skilled employees in state government and continue to compensate Corrections Department employees. In addition, there would be an attempt to amend state law to loosen restrictions on the payment of bonuses to state employees, a reform that would benefit the Department of Corrections.
Members of the Domestic Corrections and Juvenile Justice Board appeared empathetic to the challenges of keeping the prison system operating.
Rep. John Resman, an Olathe Republican and retired deputy sheriff, said state corrections officers assigned 12-hour shifts sometimes worked 18-hour days to cover absences. He said the situation was “pretty extraordinary and quite dangerous”.
The patchwork of incremental pay raises, differentials offered to officers in their first year on the job, and one-time bonus payments must be funded by the legislature and governor or the Corrections Department could lose more ground to states like Nebraska and Colorado that paid better corrections the officers, said Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita.
Rep. Adam Turk, a Shawnee Republican also a House committee member, said the agency should focus recruiting on members of the Kansas National Guard.
Zmuda said other states have been more aggressive than Kansas in increasing compensation payments. Kansas has offered a first-year officer $21.76 an hour after approved raises for the past two years. This was less than the starting salary of a corrections officer in Nebraska, which was $28 an hour. Nebraska reduced the number of vacancies from 427 to 119 in one year after implementing a large wage increase. The money was enough to recruit 270 officers from other states to Nebraska.
Colorado has addressed a shortage of state correctional officers by offering hiring bonuses of up to $7,000, retention bonuses of up to $4,000, worker referral bonuses of $2,000.
Zmuda said another factor for Kansas was low unemployment in Lansing, Norton, El Dorado and Larned, where the prison facilities were located.
Nearly 40 percent of inmates in Kansas state prisons served sentences of less than two years, Zmuda said. In Kansas, you said it costs an average of $41,000 a year to incarcerate an adult and $187,000 a year to incarcerate a youth.