EL DORADO — Gov. Sam Brownback responded to chronic state prison staff shortages and bipartisan political pressure to take swift action Thursday by proposing a 5-percent across-the-board salary increase for uniformed officers in the Kansas Department of Corrections.
The governor said uniformed officers at troubled El Dorado Correctional Facility, where he announced the executive order, were in line for raises of 10 percent. Turnover at El Dorado reached an annual rate of 47 percent in August, the highest among the eight state prisons. The objective of Brownback’s directive was to hike entry-level wages at El Dorado from $13.95 per hour to $15.75 per hour.
Brownback said the $3.7 million salary package relied exclusively on one-time allocations and would necessitate action by the 2018 Legislature to sustain beyond July 1, 2018.
“This is what we can do now. I want to emphasize that,” Brownback said. “Recruitment and retention has been a challenge for many years. We need to be more competitive. This is a first step.”
Years of persistent vacancies and substandard salaries in the state’s prison system, coupled with recent inmate unrest at El Dorado and legislators’ appeal for wage reform, led the governor to make adjustments in the compensation structure.
Current annual starting salaries for Kansas prison guards is approximately $29,000, more than $5,000 less than in Nebraska and in excess of $10,000 less than paid in Colorado. In many instances, the state expends resources to train novice corrections officers only to have them drawn to substantially better salaries at federal prisons or county and city jails.
Joe Norwood, corrections department’s secretary, said the agency would urge the state employee union to help implement the adjustments in the next pay period Aug. 27.
Following complaints by the Kansas Organization of State Employees, Norwood had declared a staffing emergency at El Dorado so the department could compel officers to work shifts up to 16 hours long. The prison in south-central Kansas experienced an upsurge in inmate conflict after the state transferred maximum-security inmates from the Lansing facility into El Dorado.
“This addresses the immediate need,” Norwood said of the stop-gap pay bump. “It is critical that we continue to offer competitive compensation.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, had recommended Brownback take executive action to boost pay for corrections workers. Ward joined two Democratic colleagues in seeking a 10-percent raise effective Sept. 1.
“This pay increase is long overdue and a step in the right direction,” Wagle said in response to the governor’s decision. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Kansas Senate to ensure our state law enforcement officials receive the support they deserve.”
Claeys, who attended the news conference, said the governor had established a baseline for the next legislative session in terms of prison employee wages. He said the Kansas House approved a bill during the 2017 session that would have elevated corrections salaries, but the plan was rejected by the Senate. The last special adjustment for prison staff was a 2.5-percent raise in 2015, he said.
The plan approved by Brownback was financed with $1.2 million in anticipated savings from closure of a medium-security unit at Lansing Correctional Facility, $1.1 million in unspent grant funding, $935,000 reserves from special-revenue accounts and $460,000 by holding open corrections department vacancies.
In terms of staff turnover at the state’s prisons, the overall rate was 33 percent. El Dorado had the highest issue with staff attrition at 46 percent. Rates at the other state prison facilities: Lansing, 37 percent; Ellsworth, 34 percent; Topeka and Larned, 29 percent; and Hutchinson and Winfield, 25 percent. In addition, more than 52 percent of the prison system’s Correctional Officer 1 employees have less than two years of experience on the job.