‘I Don’t Want To Be Poor All My Life’: Kansas Prison Staff Face Low Pay And Long Hours
Hunter Defenbaugh loves working in prison.
Five nights a week, the 19-year-old corrections officer works overnight shifts in the infirmary at El Dorado Correctional Facility 30 miles northeast of Wichita. He checks on sick inmates, gives them blankets, calls nurses for help.
Defenbaugh likes the job, he says, because he likes helping people. It beats his old gigs flipping burgers at McDonald’s or ringing up customers at Walmart.
If he respects the people he’s watching, treats them like humans, he says, they respect him back. He feels safe because his co-workers are always around to back him up if there’s trouble.
“I’ve been here for eight months,” he said. “I’m basically a veteran now.”
Less than a year after he graduated high school, Defenbaugh has become an old-timer at El Dorado, where almost 100 staff positions are unfilled.
Like many of his fellow corrections officers, Defenbaugh has worked an increasing amount of overtime. Some days last 12 hours, others stretch to 16.
He’s seen fellow corrections officers fall asleep at work, fail college classes and lose huge chunks of their modest paychecks to health insurance premiums. Many officers quit after only months on the job.
For years, Kansas prisons have struggled with job vacancies, low staff retention and wages that have barely risen since the 1980s. Tax cuts during former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tenure decimated funding for salaries and training, all while inmate populations continued to rise. The result is overworked and exhausted prison staff overseeing a growing number of people.
Now, newly elected Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed an extra $3 million dollars to hire and retain prison staff in the next fiscal year. And the state’s Department of Corrections is tasked with an uphill climb: filling 450 vacancies in the state’s nine prisons.
On nights when he works 16 hours, Defenbaugh sleeps for only three hours during the day before getting up to go to work again in the evening.
His typical shift at El Dorado runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. from Wednesday to Sunday. The prison is about an hour’s drive from Clearwater, where he lives with his girlfriend’s family.
On a normal day, Defenbaugh prefers to go to bed in the morning and wake up in the early afternoon so he can spend time with his friends and family. But there aren’t any normal work days anymore.
When he started last year, he worked overtime about twice a week. Lately, he’s been working overtime every day, for a total of more than 60 hours a week.
Sometimes, he’s asked to come in early, sometimes late. Sometimes both. Extra shifts are only supposed to be four hours, but they might run for eight hours if no one else can make it.
On long shifts, Defenbaugh keeps himself busy and talks to his co-workers so he doesn’t fall asleep.
He also struggles on his drive to and from work, often chewing gum or smoking a cigarette to stay awake. Sometimes, he hallucinates black shapes darting across the road.
“It’s exhausting,” he said. “That’s 14 hours out of a 24-hour day. And then you sleep six hours at the least, just so you can get up and have somewhat of a life.”
‘Setting them up for failure’
Before she retired, Ruth Beck was familiar with that life. She worked as a correctional officer at Ellsworth Correctional Facility from 2010 to 2016, and before that, at a prison in Florida.
She recalls co-workers taking on frequent overtime shifts to make up for low wages and health insurance premiums that sometimes took as much as $800 out of each biweekly paycheck. She saw many officers leave the job soon after they started.
“Some people come in, they find out it’s not the job for them,” she said. “Mostly, it’s the cost of the insurance.”
Beck remembers being so sleep-deprived at Ellsworth that she and her co-workers sometimes left work carrying important keys. She saw officers so busy and distracted that they cheated on required training programs and logged tasks that hadn’t been performed.
The lack of sleep compounded the stress of shifts spent entirely on their feet, checking cells, doing rounds, searching for contraband, watching the chow hall and escorting inmates to services. Add to that piles of paperwork and limited heating and air conditioning.
“It isn’t just sitting there staring at somebody. You get down there and you interact with these people,” she said. “You are the police behind that wall and it’s very stressful.”
Beck credits her experience and her training in Florida with helping her in dangerous situations, like the time an inmate tried to attack her with a broomstick. But she says the six weeks of training for Kansas officers isn’t enough.
“It is not an effective program,” she said. “It’s setting them up for failure.”
Ten years ago, experienced officers were required to take 80 hours of training each year. Now, the requirement is 40 hours. New officers must take four weeks of classroom training and two weeks of on-the-job training before starting.
Beck says officers need more instruction on defensive tactics, firearms and inappropriate relationships with inmates. The classroom and online lessons provided by the department?
“I would give them a big, fat F,” she said.
For Roger Werholtz, Kansas’ interim secretary of corrections, it all comes back to staffing.
Werholtz previously served as head of the department from 2002 to 2010. He came out of retirement to lead the agency through the transition to the Kelly administration.
He sees Kelly’s proposed $3 million to increase hiring and retention as a good place to start.
“The first step is getting more bodies on post,” he said. “If we can’t recruit effectively, and can’t get people in the door to spend that money on, then we haven’t really solved the problem.”
More staff means more opportunities for officers to be relieved for training, less mandatory overtime for exhausted employees and more experienced officers who won’t make mistakes, Werholtz said.
“Most of the time when something bad occurs, it often occurs where staff are relatively inexperienced,” he said. “It is almost always not due to one single thing that went wrong. It’s due to a lot of small things that happened over time.”
Werholtz says an increase in officers could also make the department’s rehabilitation efforts more effective. He says officers are often the people who model the social skills and coping mechanisms the department wants to teach. But overcrowding and understaffing have made that harder, too.
“We can’t teach those kinds of things until we get the facilities safe and stable again,” he said. “So right now, that’s our primary focus.”
The department is brainstorming new recruiting methods, trying to beef up its social media presence to appeal to more young jobseekers. Wardens are also recruiting retirees to come back part-time and take shifts on weekends and evenings.
There are about 3,100 full-time positions in the state’s prisons. The department has held about 300 positions open to meet budget constraints, Werholtz said. Only 52 percent of prison staff in Kansas have worked there for over two years. Many leave to work in county jails, where the pay and the hours are better.
If things don’t change, Defenbaugh might leave, too. For now, he doesn’t have many bills to pay, but he’s not sure if it’s worth getting grumpy at his girlfriend because he’s always so tired. Or working 13 days in a row just so he can swap shifts to get Halloween off. Or missing Christmas with his family because he overslept.
He could go back to college and get a degree in criminal justice, make sheet metal like some of his friends’ parents, maybe try to become a police officer like he always wanted. But that would mean giving up on a job he loves.
“I want to make a career (in) corrections, and at the rate we’re going, I’m not sure if I’d want to stay there forever,” he said. “I don’t want to be poor all my life because my job doesn’t pay enough.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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