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

TOPEKA – Operations at Lansing Correctional Facility were set to return to normal on Wednesday after inmates were confined and a tactical team and officers from other prisons were deployed to quell a melee at the maximum-security unit, state officials said.

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

David Thompson, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said Tuesday that Leavenworth County State Prison has resumed normal operations in all but maximum-security units. He said an internal investigation into the fighting, described as a riot by union representatives, would be carried out.

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

Nate Pickett, in a statement on behalf of the Kansas State Employees Organization and the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas, said Lansing Jail suffered multiple attacks among inmates and against prison staff , a recent inmate death under investigation as well as persist and significant understaffing. Lansing operates without the benefit of a quarter of its authorized uniformed personnel.

He said labor organizations have worked to convince the Department of Corrections and other members of state government to address labor and compensation issues at Lansing and other correctional facilities. The lack of employees has existed for years in Kansas and has resulted in the Department of Corrections resorting to mandatory employee overtime as well as confinement of inmates to larger correctional facilities.

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

The state Department of Corrections said the latest staffing report Monday showed 22.6% or 416 of 1,840 uniformed jobs at nine state prisons were vacant. At no time in 2022 did the shortfall among uniformed officers in Kansas prisons fall below 400. This matched previous disclosures showing the agency had 466 vacancies in January and 405 vacancies in October 2021.

As for Lansing Jail, state officials said 27.8 percent or 88 of the 316 uniformed officer positions were unfilled.

In the latest count of uniformed vacancies in Kansas correctional facilities, the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka had the deepest shortage with a vacancy rate of 38.2%. Of 157 uniformed places 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 (owned only), 4.3 or 8 out of 186.

Jeff Zmuda, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, briefed Kansas Legislative Assembly members on the staffing shortages noting that other states are experiencing similar staffing issues at correctional facilities. He said “we are not alone” and said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges to hiring the necessary staff for a prison population of around 8,500.

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