State reports progress in corrections staffing crisis, but concerns remain

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Kansas corrections officials report progress in fixing a staffing crisis that prompted Gov. Laura Kelly to declare an emergency for one facility in February.

But they admit work remains.

One facility that saw challenges was the Kansas Juvenile Corrections Complex.

"(KJCC) has had before, an image problem," admits Wendy Leiker, who took over as superintendent of the facility in September 2018.

Leiker arrived in the wake of a series of audits pointing out management, safety, and training issues; and the highly publicized removal of a prior superintendent for the alleged assault of an employee.

Leiker says she worked to change the culture of the KJCC.

"A lot of that - I'm a firm believer in transparency. I am open and honest with what we are facing with our staff shortages and some of the issues that we faced," she said.

Prison staffing shortages create concerns nationwide. See Investigate TV's special report "Locked Down."

Those same staffing issues plagued the entire Kansas corrections system. At El Dorado, corrections officials believe the shortages coupled with overcrowding played a role in a series of inmate disturbances in 2017 and 2018. The disturbances trashed areas of the facility, and injured officers.

In February, Kelly declared it an emergency.

"You have people working long hours in very intense environments," Kelly said the need to take action.

The first issue - lawmakers bumped corrections officer starting pay to $18.26 an hour. The figure is up from $14.30 in 2016, and $12.98 in 2009.

El Dorado's vacancies for uniformed officers went from 84 when the emergency was announced in February, to 74 in late June, and 50 by the end of July. The improvement was enough for the governor to end the emergency.

"We are out of the intensive care unit and we've moved on to the regular floor," she said.

But the emergency was specific to El Dorado. Numbers show less progress at other prisons.

At Lansing, vacancies went up from 114 in February, to 134 in late June. Kelly says Lansing provides a unique challenge, due to competition from a federal prison, county jail, and several private facilities all competing for the same pool of potential officers.

Topeka Correctional also increased in vacancies. TCF was short 12 uniformed officers in February. The number increased to 17 by June 24, and stood at 20 on Aug. 12.

An officer who recently left his position at TCF and asked not to be identified told us he was frequently made to work back-to-back eight hour shifts. He said it left officers not mentally alert, and he even saw some fall asleep on the job. Plus, he said lack of staff meant delays in responding to inmate requests, and doing wellness checks. In addition, the facility would implement collapsed patrols, which meant officers were overseeing larger areas and could wait several minutes for assistance from other officers if it was needed.

KJCC saw an even sharper increase also saw vacancies soar. They went from 30 in February to 53 by late June. It amounted to 29 percent of their approved uniformed officer positions vacant.

KJCC dealt with a disturbance in May.

Kelly agrees the situation got worse before it got better.

"We didn't have the pay raises in place (until May)," she said. "Then it takes time, you know, to fill those vacancies. You can't just open the door and in come the people. You've got to post and recruit and interview."

The Governor said interim secretaries Roger Werholtz and Chuck Simmons stabilized the situation. Now, she's hopeful permanent secretary Jeff Zmuda will develop long term solutions.

He began work in July, and said he is ready to keep momentum in the right direction.

"We're going to work on some retention strategies to slow down the exit of experienced employees," Zmuda said. "People don't work just for pay. They stay places because they feel valued; they feel appreciated; they feel it's a good environment to work in; they feel supported; and they feel like they're engaged in making a difference."

It's the approach Leiker is taking at KJCC. She's involving staff in recruitment ideas, using billboards and social media, and recently opening the doors for a job fair. Plus, she matches new staff with mentors.

Since the spike in June, KJCC brought vacancies down to 33 by Aug. 12.

"(The problems) motivated our staff to tell our story - that we are more than the events that came out in the media. There's a tremendous amount of good things that we do here," she said. "I want the youth to feel safe, and I want staff to feel safe in their jobs."

Leiker, Kelly, and Zmuda all say sharing that story is Important, because what inside prison walls matters to everyone on the outside.

"It's in every community's best interest to invest in a correctional system that is absolutely that - a correctional system," Kelly said. "A place where people who have done something wrong can go in, can be rehabbed, maybe be retrained, because they're going to be coming back out into the community, and it's in everybody's best interests that when those folks come back into the community, that they've developed some work skills and some social skills to allow them to integrate back into the community in a safe, productive way."

Kelly and Zmuda say their immediate priority solving overcrowding issues. The state recently announced a contract to move some offenders to a private facility in Arizona, but they do not want that to be a permanent solution.

"It matters because ultimately it's a public safety issue," Zmuda said. "When we do not have an adequate number (of officers) and people are working long shifts and maybe working days on end without days off, they can get fatigued, that can make them less alert, and that can make an unsafe environment. People should care. People should care for their public safety, and then people should care on the chance that when someone they care about comes to prison, what do they want that environment to look like? They want a safe and secure environment."