By John Celock
Amid rising tensions in state prisons and questions over the pay for state corrections officers, Kansas state lawmakers pressed the state’s prison chief on his plan.
State Corrections Secretary Joseph Norwood told a legislative committee Thursday that his department is looking at a new prison in Lansing and addressing the pay scale in order to address recruitment and retention issues. The pay issue for corrections officers have been discussed in Topeka for several years, with lawmakers pressing for a pay hike amid similar discussions for public safety officers.
“Correctional staffing is an issue across the country,” Norwood told the Legislative Budget Committee.
Norwood said that the state is seeing its highest turnover rates at El Dorado Correctional Facility, with a 46 percent turnover in the last year, and Lansing Correctional Facility, with a 37 percent turnover in the last year. System wide, Norwood said the state saw a turnover of 30 percent of corrections officers. He said the Lansing turnover rate had remained consistent since last year, while the El Dorado rate had jumped.
Norwood said that his agency was looking to increase recruitment for correctional officer openings at both El Dorado and Lansing, but cited low pay as a key issue that state is facing. He said that applications to work in the agency have “drastically reduced.” He noted the state’s roughly $29,000 annual salary for a new corrections officer, lags behind a national average of roughly $33,000 per year based on a national survey. He said that neighboring Nebraska recently raised its entry-level pay to $17 an hour.
In the Lansing prison, Norwood noted that the large amount of prisons in the area, including a federal prison, a private prison and the Wyandotte and Johnson County jails provide more job opportunities at higher pay than his agency can produce. He said that the other prisons, including those operated by county sheriffs have higher pay scales and he routinely sees corrections officers moving to other agencies after gaining experience with the state Department of Corrections.
Lawmakers questioned Norwood on how much the state is paying in training costs each year because of the high turnover rate. They noted that the training costs the state pays for each training class is then lost when corrections officers take the training and experience from the state to other agencies. Norwood said that he did not have exact figure but the department is putting a study together.
House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Erin Davis (R-Olathe) questioned Norwood if he has been looking to see how other states have been addressing recruitment and retention in prisons. Norwood said that the situation in Kansas is unique to the state but he would be open to looking to seeing how other states address the issue.
“A lot of it is economic activity and other employment opportunities,” Norwood said.
Davis also questioned Norwood on if having the large amount of prisons in the Lansing area was causing issues and if the prison there could be moved to another part of the state would that help with recruitment. House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) has previously floated the idea, including potentially moving the prison to the central part of the state.
Norwood said a move would not assist with recruitment and retention and said the proposal his department is pushing to build a new prison in Lansing to replace the existing one would have the most impact. He noted that a new prison would be built in a way that would reduce the amount of officers needed for staffing and the addition of air conditioning to the prison would make it a more desirable work environment.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Ranking Minority Member Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) questioned Norwood on the move of the El Dorado prison warden for the corrections department headquarters. El Dorado has been the site of several disturbances in recent months.
Norwood said the transfer was done to expose the warden to new job opportunities after spending most of his career in El Dorado and that the warden would be working on new training programs for the department. He noted that training would be part of any new recruitment and retention program.