TOPEKA — A Kansas Department of Corrections employee is “no longer employed” at the state agency after inadvertently making public an email that urged a public relations staff member to downplay the possible need for a special legislative session to raise the pay of corrections officers at state prisons, an official said Friday.
In a statement, Gov. Sam Brownback’s spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the corrections department’s legislative liaison, Jimmy Caprio, was no longer employed at the department.
“The administration evaluates, develops and executes public safety policy based on facts and data — not political consideration. This individual did not speak on behalf of the administration and is no longer employed by the Department of Corrections,” Willoughby said.
“The Governor’s office remains dedicated to order and safety in the prison system, and continues to work closely with the Kansas Department of Corrections as they take active steps to address staffing challenges,” she said.
Willoughby’s statement did not say whether Caprio resigned or was fired from his position at the department.
Caprio sent an email to The Kansas City Star, apparently by accident, that weighed the political implications for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, if he became governor upon Brownback’s resignation and was compelled to sign legislation raising taxes to pay for an increase in corrections officers’ pay. In the email Caprio sent to a colleague at the corrections department, he confided that a special session would get “very hairy and puts the gov office in a tight spot.” He said the special session would “almost certainly” include a tax increase.
Caprio, however, advised KDOC spokeswoman Cheryl Cadue in the email to say publicly that “it would be ok to say we are open to all opportunities and look forward to working with both the Legislature and governors office to find a solution,” according to The Star.
Cadue’s eventual statement to The Star did not address the politics of the situation and followed Caprio’s suggestion to mention working with the governor and Legislature.
Republican Rep. J.R. Claeys, of Salina, has called for a special session this fall to raise officers’ pay as the department grapples with staffing shortages at its prisons. El Dorado Correctional Facility, which had 93 officer vacancies on Aug. 1, has seen rising tensions and outbreaks of violence amid the shortages. Inmates have also been double bunked to increase capacity for the prison’s rising population.
KDOC declared the shortage an emergency on Tuesday after a union representing corrections officers filed a grievance over forced overtime shifts. Under the emergency status, the department can require officers to work up to 18 consecutive hours, Kansas Organization of State Employees executive director Robert Choromanski said in an email.
Claeys said Caprio’s remarks did not surprise him, but that something needed to be done about officers’ pay.
“I think the tight spot that they speak of is probably much tighter of a spot when there’s a corrections officer who is injured or killed and we stood by and did nothing,” he said. “This is at a crisis level, and it needs to be dealt with. And nine months from now — I would hate for it to be too late.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said in a statement Friday that she had submitted unspecified questions to KDOC to “ensure that all possible solutions are exhausted prior to spending tax dollars on a special session” before urging Brownback to call a special session.
Choromanski said he was shocked by the comments because Caprio had told him earlier Friday that he wanted to work with KOSE on correctional officer retention and to see if pay could be raised.
“He was two-faced to me today,” Choromanski said.
Choromanski said Caprio initially seemed “genuine and concerned” about addressing staffing shortages at the state’s prisons and raising pay for officers when he said the two talked Friday. Choromanski characterized Caprio’s actions as “hard-ball politics.”
“Of course, he’s going to be a political hack because he’s going to do whatever’s in the best interest of his boss,” Choromanski said.
Choromanski previously said he thought the administration was not working to resolve the situation at El Dorado to drive the state to privatize the prison system.
“The state is trying to set up for failure, so we have to contract it out to a private contractor,” he said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the gap between comments Caprio thought should be shared internally and externally demonstrated the preference among some members of the Brownback administration to thwart solutions to the state’s prison problems in an effort to bolster Colyer’s likely candidacy for governor.
“These people are more concerned about their own asses than public safety,” Ward said. “At some point, you need to govern. Let the political chips fall where they may.”
Rep. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, participated in a Lansing news conference with Ward and two other Democratic colleagues to press for consideration of a three-part remedy to problems related to 30 percent employee turnover in the state prison system and mandatory 16-hour shifts at El Dorado. He said Caprio attended the news conference, which occurred hours before losing his job.
“It’s a bad situation,” Pittman said. “The administrative staff needs to address it. I don’t think they’re being forthright.”
The group of House Democrats recommended a 10 percent pay increase for all correctional officers and staff on Sept. 1, with the funding transferred from within the agency’s budget. The corrections budget could be replenished by the 2018 Legislature, Pittman said.
In addition, the coalition of legislators and union members urged KDOC Secretary Joe Norwood to stop transfers of inmates among the state’s prison until a long-term plan could be developed. The group also asked the Brownback administration to commit to a good-faith effort to rebuild the Lansing Correctional Facility.
Caprio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.