Staffing shortage at Kansas prison means inmates spend more time in cells with less access to programs

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
El Dorado Correctional Facility in Butler County has a staffing shortage.

Inmates at one of the state's largest prisons are spending more time confined to their cells because of an ongoing staffing shortage, officials said.

Staffing across the prison system "continues to be a challenge in this competitive job market," Kansas Department of Corrections spokesperson Carol Pitts said by email.

"At this time, the El Dorado Correctional Facility is our greatest challenge necessitating changes to the operation of the facility," Pitts said. "The result (is) less access to programs and activities for facility residents and increased in cell time."

Resident adult population reports show the system is housing fewer residents than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Pitts said KDOC has closed some housing units to reduce staff needs.

The agency has also increased recruiting efforts and started a program where employees can earn extra paid leave through successful job referrals.

Public and private sector employers in Kansas have struggled to find workers. While economic indicators show the unemployment rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the workforce has tens of thousands fewer people.

More:Kansas economic indicators show rising wages, inflation as unemployment returns to pre-COVID levels

Statewide, a 4.7% drop in public sector employment over the past two years translates into 12,000 fewer employees on the job, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

In a Sept. 15 memo to residents and family members, KDOC Secretary Jeff Zmuda noted a "need to retain experienced staff and to hire new employees" as staffing shortages "top the list of challenges we face."

"Our staffing levels, not just among our uniformed staff, but in parole, unit team, and virtually all areas, continue to be on the decline," Zmuda said. "This impacts our staff through longer days and work weeks or by taking on extra duties and assignments so that we continue to meet the safety, security and programming needs of our department and communities."

In a Sept. 22 memo, Zmuda said an improving recidivism rate has contributed to an approximate 17% decline in the prison population over the past two and a half years. The effect on day-to-day operations has helped with staffing and saved taxpayer money.

The El Dorado facility faced staffing problems before the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2019, Gov. Laura Kelly declared an emergency at the prison due to staffing shortages inside the facility, which had multiple inmate disturbances over the previous two years.

Staffing issues statewide reportedly contributed to the prison riots, which injured officers and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. The emergency declaration meant temporarily longer hours and a higher starting pay for workers.

"The shortage there is really a huge safety and security issue," Kelly said at the time. "This is not something anybody wanted to do, but it absolutely had to be done."

The state declared an emergency at the prison in 2017, also because of staffing shortages.