TOPEKA, Kan. — Recent inmate disturbances at a maximum-security Kansas prison aren’t tied to staffing shortages there, the state’s top corrections official said Thursday, even as he warned state lawmakers that low pay is creating high turnover and a less-experienced work force.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood also told a legislative committee that the El Dorado prison’s former warden recently took a new job within the Department of Corrections because doing so was “in the best interests” of the prison, though Norwood called him a valued employee.
The department has confirmed three disturbances at the El Dorado prison in May and June involving inmates who refused to return to their cells, as well as two pairs of inmate-on-inmate fights on July 28 that sent one inmate from each altercation to a hospital with stab wounds. Norwood has attributed the disturbances to newly arrived inmates who were transferred there from other prisons.
All of the prisons struggle with turnover among corrections officers, but the El Dorado prison, east of Wichita, has the highest annual rate at 46 percent, compared with 33 percent for the entire system. The department reported an increase in staff vacancies in the last days of July, and Norwood disclosed that 21 El Dorado employees left the prison last month.
But when reporters later pressed Norwood about whether staffing shortage make the prison riper for disturbances — as suggested by some workers, their union and some legislators — he said staff numbers “did not have any bearing on it.”
“All of our security posts were manned, whether it be for a regular shift or an overtime shift,” Norwood said.
The El Dorado prison began in June to schedule employees for four, 12-hours shifts a week and later required some to work 16-hour shifts on the last days of their work weeks.
Robert Choromanski, the union’s executive director, said staffing shortages and employees’ long hours make the environment more volatile. Norwood himself told legislators that he’s worried because 53 percent of the prison system’s first-level officers have fewer than two years of experience.
“I think the secretary is in a state of denial and is still trying to white-wash the situation,” Choromanski said.
Norwood also faced questions about the department’s plans to build a new prison in Lansing, in the Kansas City area, to replace the state’s oldest and largest lockup there.
Three companies are bidding for the project, worth up to $155 million. Norwood said he couldn’t disclose their names to the committee, but the state Department of Administration gave AP the list last month. They are CoreCivic, of Nashville; another company that runs private prisons, GEO Group, of Boca Raton, Fla., and Lansing Correctional Partners, of Memphis, Tennessee.
The department hopes to have a final contract by Nov. 15, Norwood said.
In discussing El Dorado’s problems, Norwood said the three disturbances there — May 8, June 24 and June 29 — resulted in no significant injuries to inmates and staff and minimal property damages. Three employees who spoke with The Associated Press anonymously because they feared reprisals described them as more serious than the department did.
The department reported the July 28 inmate fights, and Norwood told lawmakers Thursday that the altercations were gang-related.
State. Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, chastised Norwood for what she said was the department’s failure to provide lawmakers with full information about problems in its prisons. Norwood confirmed the May 8 and June 24 incidents for AP after it reported them based on its interviews with the employees.
Lawmakers generally agree that the $13.95 an hour for starting pay for corrections officers is too low. One proposal would boost officers’ pay by up to 20 percent.
“We’re your partners,” Kelly said. “You need us, but we also need you to be straightforward with us and tell what’s going on.”
Norwood told her: “I’m certainly going to apologize for not getting information to you.”
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