Corrections secretary Roger Werholtz offered a bleak, unreserved assessment Tuesday of staffing challenges at the state prison in El Dorado after declaring the situation an emergency.
The declaration means guards there will have to endure 12-hour shifts — and there appears to be no immediate solution to a years-long, unyielding problem.
There are now 95 vacancies at the El Dorado Correctional Facility and more than 400 statewide. Werholtz said the guards already have worked too many long shifts, and he was asking them to work too many more.
When he meets with them Thursday, he will tell them "people have heard what they’re struggling with, understand it and want to fix it — and to please hang in there with us a little bit longer until we can get it fixed," Werholtz said.
"I’m fearful to some degree," he said, "that they’re going to become discouraged and just give up, to think there’s no end in sight."
Gov. Laura Kelly said problems with resources at state prisons are nothing new. The extended hours aren't healthy, she said, but drastic action was needed.
She blamed years of neglect, underfunding and mismanagement for the "serious consequences" the Kansas Department of Corrections now faces.
"This is not something anybody wanted to do, but it absolutely had to be done," she said.
Staffing problems in 2017 and 2018 led to riots at facilities in El Dorado and elsewhere, and photos Werholtz released last month the extent of damages for the first time. They included images of officers who were bloodied by the violent encounters.
In addition to making employees work longer hours, the emergency declaration allows the prison to offer additional pay for temporary workers.
Werholtz said he hopes that allows them to get more people in the door, but the real solution would need to come from the Legislature in the form of better pay and benefits. He said he was encouraged by the concern he heard from both Republican and Democratic leaders in a meeting on the issue with the governor.
“I got the sense that everybody was really willing to try and figure out what we can do as quickly as possible to address this issue," he said.
Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the declaration will last for 90 days, she said, at which time the corrections department will reevaluate the situation.
LaFrenz said staffing complaints have fallen on deaf ears in the past but that she thinks Kelly and KDOC are taking the situation seriously.
"Our corrections officers and correctional staff put themselves at tremendous risk each day in service of our communities, and that risk increases dramatically when staffing shortages create a need for mandatory, unplanned overtime and minimal coverage at correctional facilities," she said. "Workplace safety is a right that all Kansans deserve. It is high time that our state government address this serious, ongoing problem."
KOSE leaders joined teachers unions for an "Invest in Kansas" advocacy event in the rotunda, where Kelly fielded questions from the crowd about the situation in El Dorado and other topical issues.
She said she was concerned by the dramatic shift of classified to unclassified status for state workers who felt pressured into abandoning union protections during the past four years.
Kelly said her administration was reviewing options for reversing the trend but that the issue was complicated.
"I will just assure you that this administration believes in civil service protections," Kelly said.
She defended her proposal to refinance the public employee pension system, saying a 30-year plan to pay off unfunded liability won't put anybody's benefits in jeopardy.
Kelly said she doesn't need the money to balance the budget for the first two years of her administration, but she remains concerned about increasing costs in later years. If the state starts missing or withholding part of its payments, she said, benefits could be threatened.