Staffing shortages at the El Dorado Correctional Facility are creating unsafe working conditions, according to the head of the union that represents state workers.
Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, has filed a formal grievance with Secretary of Corrections Joe Norwood, alleging that prison officials are “coercing” guards to work a weekly 16-hour shift to ensure adequate staffing.
“They [prison officials] are doing it behind the scenes,” Choromanski said. “The majors, captains, lieutenants and sergeants are all pressuring the line officers to work those extra four hours.”
Guards at the facility, which houses medium- and maximum-security prisoners, were required to go from eight- to 12-hour shifts earlier this month in an effort to beef up security after a June 29 disturbance when inmates briefly controlled portions of the prison.
That was permissible under the union’s bargaining agreement with the Department of Corrections, but 16-hour shifts are not except in emergency situations, Choromanski said.
Currently, 73 of the prison’s 360 positions for uniformed correctional officers are vacant, said Todd Fertig, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections. In addition, seven of the facility’s 125 non-uniformed security positions are unfilled.
In recent weeks, the department has stepped up its recruiting efforts, mailing flyers to virtually every household in Butler County, where the prison is located.
Poor working conditions, low pay and the need for more protective equipment, such as vests that protect guards from stabbings, top the reasons for high staff turnover and vacancy rates, Choromanski said.
“They are worried about going to work,” he said of his members. “They’re worried about their safety.”
The Wichita Eagle reported Monday that the number of disciplinary cases against inmates has increased sharply in recent months. As of mid-July, there were more than 2,400 cases. In 2016, 2,841 were reported for the entire year. The rise in disciplinary actions coincided with an increase in the inmate population.
To compensate for staff shortages, prison officials emptied one cell house by transferring inmates to other facilities across the state, Fertig said in an email Monday.
“The professionalism of the EDCF staff and their practice of sound correctional procedures ensures that the facility operates in a manner that is safe and secure for both employees and offenders,” he said.
To gather more information, Choromanski has scheduled two days of meetings this week at the prison. However, because the room he was assigned is in the prison’s administrative offices, Choromanski is concerned that some employees may be reluctant to show up.
So he is also hosting an after-hours session at an El Dorado bar frequented by prison workers.
“They can show up there and talk to me one-on-one if they don’t want to do it at the facility,” he said.
Several lawmakers have said they would support a substantial pay raise for corrections workers in next year’s budget.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the state spent $5.1 million on overtime pay for prison workers, according to the Eagle, above the $3.2 million that had been budgeted.
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.