Council approves $9M in pay raises for Kan. corrections staff
The council unanimously approved $9 million in pay increases for corrections officers and other staff
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.
TOPEKA, Kan. — A Republican-dominated finance council approved millions in funding Tuesday to address overcrowding, understaffing and a hepatitis C outbreak throughout the Kansas corrections system.
The commitment excludes more than half the funding sought by the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, for the use of inmate beds at facilities outside the state system.
Additionally, an error in budget language blocked a request to move women out of the state-run Topeka prison and into available space at the nearby juvenile corrections facility.
Roger Werholtz, who served as interim corrections secretary until the end of May, asked for funding in numerous proposals to help address emergency problems he inherited when he took over the agency in January. Republicans inserted restrictions into the state budget that require funding approval from the State Finance Council for a variety of corrections requests.
Kelly presides over the council, which meets as needed to handle budget-related issues when the Legislature isn't in session. Wednesday's meeting was the first following the close of the session last month, and the council considered four proposals by Werholtz.
Other council members include the top two Republican leaders from both the Senate and House, the Republican budget chairs from both chambers, and the Senate and House minority leaders.
The council unanimously approved $9 million in pay increases for corrections officers and other staff who have regular contact with inmates at state prisons. The money is expected to put a dent in severe staffing shortages.
Officers at the El Dorado prison have logged 2,000 16-hour shifts following an emergency declaration in February.
"You can't work somebody 16 to 18 hours a day like we have been," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park. "That's awful policy, and it's unhealthy, unproductive, and just everything's wrong with it."
Part of the Werholtz plan involved temporary closure of a cell block with 256 beds at El Dorado, which would ease the burden of working long hours there. Even if 80 qualified applicants turn up right away, Werholtz said, they need two months of training before taking over a post.
Republicans balked at the idea, pointing to the shortage of available beds, and specifically prevented the agency from closing the cell block with language in the budget.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, questioned whether the agency needed the full $10.95 million requested for the outsourcing of 600 inmate beds. The prison population is only 192 over capacity, Ryckman said.
Werholtz said an additional 300 beds is needed to stop a dangerous practice of returning violent criminals to the general prison population because there isn't enough room in segregated areas of the state prisons. Also, the prison population is expected to grow by more than 300 inmates in the next year, Werholtz said.
The agency solicited bids for the outsourcing of beds. County jails could accommodate 80-130 inmates, and a private prison in Arizona offered to take three rounds of 120 inmates. Legislators said the private prison was run by CoreCivic, a company formerly known as CCA and subject to controversial conditions.
Denning objected to the policy of using private prisons. He pointed to bipartisan legislation passed last year that prevents the privatization of security at Kansas facilities.
"I just don't think we should send Kansas prisoners to a private prison," Denning said. "We're going to get sued, and it's not going to work for us."
Ryckman proposed allotting $4.3 million for the use of 360 beds at the Arizona facility, while allowing the agency alternately to use the money on beds in county jails.
"As much as we may not like to send our folks to private prisons out of state, that's the situation we're in today," Ryckman said.
The council approved the funding with Denning and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, opposed.
Wagle raised concerns with allocating funds without the blessing of a Senate-approved corrections secretary. Kelly selected Jeff Zmuda, an Idaho official who became the subject of scrutiny in a lawsuit to force the release of execution records.
Wagle said Zmuda won't receive confirmation from the Kansas Senate.
Kelly said Zmuda "understands completely my administration's commitment to transparency, and he will act accordingly."
The council also approved $4.5 million in funding to treat an estimated 400 inmates for hepatitis C.
Werholtz hoped to move 120 inmates from the women's prison to the juvenile facility and establish a substance abuse program there. The council rejected the proposal because funding in the budget was earmarked for renovations, which Werholtz said is a significant problem.
"It basically gives us no options for dealing with the excess female population we have right now," Werholtz said. "This idea that we needed that money for renovation — I have no clue where that wording came from. That did not exist in any documentation we provided to anybody, and we made it clear when we were visiting with folks that we didn't need the money for renovation."
Republicans complained that funding requests from Werholtz came late in the session, when it was too late for committees to hear testimony. Werholtz said he provided information to lawmakers throughout the session as he evaluated problems.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said Republicans didn't deploy the same level of scrutiny when former Gov. Sam Brownback was in charge.
"They didn't care when Brownback was governor, and we ended up in this crisis," Sawyer said. "I'm concerned. I'm hopeful nothing bad happens, that we don't have a major incident because of the State Finance Council dragging its feet."
©2019 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.