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Overtime Skyrockets In Kansas Prisons As Staff Shortages Take A Toll

File photo
Kansas News Service
A November 2018 riot at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility resulted in one inmate injury. No staff were injured, but five housing units were damaged.

Kansas prisons spend almost four times as much on overtime pay as they did six years ago. 

The state paid out more than $8.2 million on overtime in fiscal year 2018 and is on track to spend even more in 2019, with overtime exceeding $5 million in just the first half of the fiscal year.

That’s compared to fiscal year 2013, when the state paid out just $1.8 million in overtime.

State officials say high staff turnover and hiring difficulties place even more stress on what they contend is an underfunded system. At the root of the problem are low wages and increasingly expensive health insurance for corrections officers.

“Despite the pay increases that they’ve received, they’ve actually seen a reduction in their net wages,” said recently appointed interim corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz at a meeting of legislators at the state Capitol on Thursday. “The coverage that they're paying more for,” he said, “covers less.”

Some overtime hours are voluntary, but many officers are required to work mandatory shifts beyond their regular hours. That’s placed additional strain on employees who already deal with safety risks such as poorly maintained equipment and violence from a rising number of inmates, department officials said.

Although no staff were injured during last year’s prison riots in Larned and El Dorado, corrections officers still face the risk of being stabbed or battered on a daily basis. Some inmates throw feces, urine and other bodily fluids at staff. 

“They work in an incredibly difficult environment,” Werholtz said, “with a very difficult population.”

In a phone interview, the recently appointed interim secretary said the prison system needs more money.

“That’s not the only answer. But whatever has to be done,” Werholtz said, “is going to be an expensive solution.”

Currently, prisons have to leave a percentage of vacant jobs unfilled in order to meet budget constraints, corrections finance director Keith Bradshaw told lawmakers.

“There’s not many areas” to cut, Bradshaw said, “other than in personnel.”

State Rep. Russ Jennings of Lakin is the chair of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee in the Kansas House of Representatives. In an interview, he said the state may be sending a message that it doesn’t value corrections officers.

“It’s a high-stress job where we expect them to be paying close attention to what's going on,” he said. “And we’re placing them at risk by overworking them.”

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.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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