Kansas Corrections Head Briefs Lawmakers On Prison Staffing Issues

Aug 3, 2017

Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood waits to speak before a legislative committee Thursday.
Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

Kansas lawmakers had some tough questions Thursday for Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood about staff shortages that recently contributed to several violent incidents at a state prison in El Dorado.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, took Norwood to task for withholding information about inmate unrest at the prison located just north of Wichita.

“It concerns me that we’re not getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Kelly said.

Related: Union Head: Understaffing At El Dorado Prison Creating Unsafe Working Conditions

Norwood apologized but said while highly publicized, none of the incidents seriously threatened prison security.

“No staff were injured. No inmates were injured," he said. "And there was very minimum damage to any property.”

Norwood said despite a high turnover rate, staffing levels at the prison are adequate. But he acknowledged that guards are having to work too much overtime.

Information obtained by the Kansas News Service shows that the vacancy rate at the state’s eight prisons increased by more than 13 percent in just the last week and a half.

Low salaries are among the reasons for the turnover rate, Norwood said. In Colorado, where starting pay is $40,500, the turnover rate is 16 percent. Here in Kansas, where the starting pay is $29,000 (nearly $5,000 under the national average), the turnover rate is more than 33 percent.

Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.