Staffing at Kansas prisons was a problem in 2017 and 2019. That prompted calls for decisive action. Yet things have only gotten worse. Blaise Mesa of the Kansas News Service reports that workers have long hours and inmates are locked down to keep facilities operational.
HUTCHINSON, Kansas — By 8 p.m. on a Friday, David Gorges has already clocked 48 stressful hours counseling and guarding inmates at the state prison in town.
His work week isn’t over. He’s working security at The Alley, an arcade and bowling alley in Hutchinson.
He takes on extra work so he can be debt-free when he retires, though he said he is close to paying off his farm.
“I don’t go out and drive a Corvette,” Gorges said. “My wife doesn’t have a Cadillac Escalade, or anything like that. We live a humble lifestyle. We don’t go on these lavish trips out of state. We just believe in good hard work.”
He needs the extra job because his checks from the Kansas Department of Corrections aren't big enough.
The state prison system finds itself in a crisis to find enough people to take on relatively low pay for the grueling and often dangerous work of correctional officers and the other jobs needed to run places like the Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
Prison administrators and union officials say it’s never been so hard to get people to take on these jobs. If you think it’s hard these days to find somebody to flip burgers or swing a hammer, just try to find somebody willing to walk a cellblock.
The state has 405 uniformed vacancies with another 119 people on extended leave. Prisons are expected to lose another 75 workers by the end of the year. The Kansas Juvenile Complex is missing 31% of its uniformed staff and KDOC's entire Emporia office quit for jobs elsewhere.
KDOC Secretary Jeff Zmuda told a committee of state lawmakers that other jobs offer more flexible hours and remote work. Prisons can’t.
“We’re not alone in those challenges,” he said. “Job markets for all employers are as competitive as any of us have seen in recent memory.”
So the department relies on mandatory overtime and adding job responsibilities to the few people it can keep.
Gorges is a corrections counselor and spends his shift helping inmates find jobs, housing or anything else they need. He then heads to the cellblocks as a corrections officer, even if he has more counseling work to do.
“You hunker down and make it happen,” Gorges said. “Failure is not an option.”
Gage Sears, who was a corrections officer in 2019, said mandatory overtime was like getting “punched in the stomach.” The Hutchinson Correctional Facility didn't have air conditioning, so he might spend his shift in sweltering heat before being told to stay longer.
“You’d be completely drained by the end of (a shift), and it didn’t matter if you were exhausted or tired,” Sears said. “They call and say, ‘Hey, you have to stay for four more hours.' And even if you tried to plead your case, most of the time that didn’t matter.”
He stopped making plans after work because he knew he would likely be called to stay longer. Sears said people could volunteer for overtime, which he and others did, but that was because they needed the extra money to pay bills. Some staff would finish one eight-hour shift and volunteer for another.
Sears said he felt unsafe at work because he would usually supervise cellblocks of inmates by himself because the department didn't have enough officers to work at one time.
A corrections officer was sent to the hospital after an incident with an inmate last week. The department said the officer is in stable condition and they are investigating the incident.
Sarah LaFrenz, union president for the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said a single officer was watching over 100 inmates. She said the employee quickly became unconscious and, if not for inmates stepping in to help, the officer could have been killed.
“This is a real time example of how bad outcomes happen,” LaFrenz said. “The department of corrections … (is) heartbroken and disturbed and very upset about all of this. But there has to be real, meaningful change to how these facilities are managed.”
KDOC's staffing shortages are especially bad at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. Inmates are under a modified lockdown schedule that keeps higher security residents inside their cells for 23 hours a day.
Sherrick Sims, an inmate at El Dorado, said this means less time to talk with his children.
“Under a different schedule I used to call and just check on them and talk to them, even if it is for just a few minutes to let them know, “Hey, daddy is thinking of you. How your schooling [and] grades going, ya know?'” he said in a phone interview from the prison. “You miss a lot. … I like to at least try to call them so that way they know I tried.”
Sims spoke with the Kansas News Service during his hour outside of his cell. He only had time for a shower and to make a few phone calls before most of his time had run out. He passes the time reading, reviewing his case or watching TV.
The lockdown makes even the stagnancy of prison even more painfully boring. Programs that prisoners usually have access to aren’t available during a modified lockdown.
Sims said inmates feel like an afterthought.
“You feel like you’re being mistreated,” he said. “You’re cooped up. It gives you this anger.”
Looking for a fix
Lawmakers want to use federal COVID-19 relief funds for bonuses to keep and hire staff to address immediate staffing problems. But they also asked Zmuda to present a plan to the Legislature to address long-standing staffing issues.
Starting pay for both adult and juvenile corrections officers is $18.26 an hour while parole officers start at $17.39.
Andy Potter, founder of One Voice United, a group that advocates for corrections officers, said solutions need to be more comprehensive than just pay increases. He said this issue is a nationwide crisis because the work is being devalued.
Potter says higher pay helps, but improved benefits and better working conditions are also needed. He said corrections work can be dangerous, and benefits packages need to be generous enough to encourage people to apply.
“If the industry isn’t going to invest in the individual, then it’s very difficult for individuals to come into this with any level of forward investment on their part as well,” he said.
Sedgwick County lost eight intensive supervision officers, or 11% of the staff, and the turnover rate for community corrections in Kansas is three times higher than the national average.
Michael Scribner, president of Teamsters Local 696, the union that represents juvenile corrections officers, wants to see starting pay increase by almost $7 an hour.
“Businesses and the government (aren’t) willing to pay the amount of money they need to pay to fully staff their facilities,” Scribner said. “It's a dangerous thing whenever you don’t have the staffing to do the job and you're overworking the staff that you have, it's a recipe for disaster.”
For Gorges, a pay increase is welcomed, but until that happens, he'll be at the bowling alley on the weekends.
“I would much rather be home with my family. Much rather,” Gorges said. “I love my wife and my kids immensely. I would rather spend time with them than be here.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at email@example.com. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.