‘Entire system in crisis’: Governor speaks out on El Dorado Correctional Facility

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KSN continues to talk to El Dorado Correctional Facility officers about the ongoing crisis.

“We just need officers. More officers. And, now,” said the officer KSN is calling Grant.

Grant wanted to remain anonymous.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelley agrees the crisis has to be addressed.

“Whoever your sources are, are right. It is a dangerous situation for our employees in those institutions,” Governor Kelly told KSN News on Monday. “And we have a moral responsibility to do something as quickly as we can.”

The governor has convened a task force to find solutions. Kelly says the problem has been building for years where lawmakers have not been getting the whole picture of the crisis situation.

“It is not just El Dorado,” said Governor Kelly. “Our entire corrections system is in critical condition, and we have got to do some things.”

KOSE is the Kansas Organization of State Employees. KOSE is a union for some state employees in the executive branch of Kansas, and it represents many rank and file corrections officers like Grant.

“This is a powder keg. It’s not an if anymore of when something truly terrible is going to happen to one of our employees in the system, it’s a when,” said Sarah LaFrenz, President of KOSE. “It’s probably unsafe right now at El Dorado based on the staffing problems. Lansing and Hutchinson as well.”

LaFrenz says she believes something bad is on the way if more corrections officers are not added soon. She also says officers do not want to work in the system because relatively of low starting pay around $15.75 an hour. But, LaFrenz adds, retention is a big part of the problem.

When El Dorado Correctional Facility was deemed to be an emergency by the state, El Dorado was down 88 corrections officers. Now, that number is at 89.

“And training costs a lot of money, and it isn’t going to be very helpful if you train folks, and then, you can’t keep them employed because they find someplace else they want to go,” said LaFrenz. “Or the situation is so unsafe and so stressful that they just don’t want to keep working there.”

Grant says that is exactly the case, and he remains concerned working at El Dorado prison.

KSN asked Grant what he would tell Governor Laura Kelly is he got a chance to have a discussion.

“I would tell her it’s not safe. You can’t work people that many hours and expect them to drive back and forth home get cleaned up, eat, expect them to come back after four or five hours of sleep,” said Grant.

For now, El Dorado remains on emergency status. Grant says that means they are working long hours with required overtime to cover shifts. Grant says 12-hour days are often mandatory. Sometimes they work four days in a row at 16-hour shifts. Then, they get three days off.

Grant says some officers are considering leaving the job. Some lawmakers say they know something bad could be on the way at one of the Kansas prisons if more officers are not added quickly.

“I wish I had an answer. I can’t guarantee that won’t happen,” Representative John Carmichael, D-Wichita, told KSN on Friday. “The problem is these officers are chronically underpaid even with the increases that were provided under the prior administration. They can make more money driving a truck.”

And some are considering it.

“I could make more money somewhere else, and I’m not saying I won’t leave,” said Grant. “Believe me with the benefits getting worse, I have to consider that. The people still here (long-term officers) are the ones that just know this job has to be done.”

Representative J. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, chairs the committee on corrections and juvenile justice.

“Well, unfortunately, this is not a new problem,” said Jennings. “Not only at El Dorado, but it’s present at other facilities. Certainly, the worst case scenario (is) at El Dorado.”

Representaive Jennings says they are exploring enhancing the salary and benefits for corrections officers so they can attract qualified staff to do the job.

“Our state prisons house the most violent and dangerous offenders that previously resided in the community,” said Jennings. “And there’s certainly a cohort of those folks who want to do harm to anyone, other inmates or staff. And a lack of adequate staff to properly manage the population places everyone at risk.”

KSN asked Representative Jennings if they will find more money to attract more officers.

“That’s part of the plan,” said Jennings. “I would say 9 (90% chance) it’s quite likely.”

Representaive Jennings and the governor both say they need to look at other areas to alleviate some of the strain on the system.

“I think we need to review the entire criminal justice system carefully and ensure that we are incarcerating those that are a risk to public safety,” said Representative Jennings. “And House Bill 2018 is a bill that does exactly that. It creates a Kansas criminal justice reform commission that will be charged with studying our criminal justice system to assure that we are encarcerating those that should be and developing alternatives to prison for those that don’t need to be there.”

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