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Kansas corrections system grapples with 22.6% vacancy rate among uniformed prison staff

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Labor union points to understaffing as factor in latest violence at Lansing prison

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by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
July 20, 2022

TOPEKA — Operations at the Lansing Correctional Facility were expected Wednesday to return to normal following lockdown of inmates and deployment of a tactical team and officers from other prisons to quell a melee in the maximum-security unit, state officials said.

Violence erupted among inmates Friday night in Lansing’s A Unit and prisoners assaulted corrections officers responding to the disturbance. One inmate was hospitalized with a stab wound and several corrections officers were injured, the union representing officers said.

David Thompson, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said Tuesday the state prison in Leavenworth County had resumed normal operations in all but maximum-security units. He said an internal inquiry into the fighting, described as a riot by union representatives, would be conducted.

“An investigation into the actions of those involved began right away and is ongoing,” Thompson said.

Nate Pickett, in a statement on behalf of the Kansas Organization of State Employees and the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas, said the Lansing prison had endured multiple attacks among inmates and against corrections staff, a recent inmate death under investigation as well as persisent and substantial understaffing. Lansing is operating without benefit of one-fourth its authorized uniformed staff.

He said labor organizations had worked to convince the Department of Corrections and others in state government to address workforce and compensation issues at Lansing and other prison facilities. The employee shortfall has existed for years in Kansas and resulted in reliance by the Department of Corrections on mandatory employee overtime as well as inmate lockdowns at the larger prison facilities.

“KDOC management continues to use the same formula while expecting different results,” Pickett said. “What is it going to take for KDOC to take staffing and safety seriously?”

The state Department of Corrections said the latest staffing report Monday indicated 22.6% or 416 of 1,840 uniformed jobs in nine state prisons were vacant. At no point in 2022 has the shortfall among uniformed officers at the Kansas prisons fallen below 400. That corresponded to previous disclosures showing the agency had 466 vacancies in January and 405 vacancies in October 2021.

In terms of the Lansing prison, state officials said, 27.8% or 88 of 316 uniformed officer positions were not filled.

In the latest tally of uniformed vacancies in Kansas prison facilities, the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka had the most profound shortage with a vacancy rate of 38.2%. Of 157 uniformed slots at the juvenile facility, 60 had no takers.

Vacancy figures for other Department of Corrections facilities: El Dorado, 31.8% or 114 of 358; Ellsworth, 29.8% or 48 of 161; Norton, 27.6% or 53 of 192; Larned, 24.2% or 32 of 132; Hutchinson, 17.1% or 62 of 361; Winfield, 8.2% or 11 of 134; and Topeka (women inmates only), 4.3 or 8 of 186.

Jeff Zmuda, secretary of the corrections department, has briefed members of the Kansas Legislature on employee shortages by noting other states were experiencing similar staffing problems at prison facilities. He said “we’re not alone” and indicated the COVID-19 pandemic brought additional challenges to hiring personnel needed for an inmate population of about 8,500.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttps://sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2021 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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