Kansas Department of Corrections interim secretary Roger Werholtz says two employees of the El Dorado prison have crashed vehicles because they fell asleep after working long hours.
Guards at the state-run prison have worked 16-hour shifts following an emergency declaration made by Gov. Laura Kelly in February that allows the corrections department to force beleaguered personnel to work extended hours.
Werholtz called the situation "brutal" during a recording of the Capitol Insider, the podcast by The Topeka Capital-Journal that examines people and policy in state government. One employee wrecked a vehicle while driving home after work, Werholtz said, and another wrecked a state vehicle while on patrol at the prison.
"I know when I get tired and I get cranky, I don't make as good of decisions, and I certainly don't interact as well with people, and tired officers interacting with provocative inmates is not a good recipe," Werholtz said.
Kelly requested a $35 million addition to the state budget to address staffing problems, overcrowding and safety concerns that have consumed the corrections system in recent years. The Legislature provided some of the requested funds to KDOC and sent the rest to an oversight panel, complicating the agency's ability to utilize the money.
Kelly and Werholtz say restrictions placed on requested funding stifle their ability to deal with a "dire emergency."
"They created unnecessary hurdles in my ability to guarantee public safety," Kelly said.
The budget passed by the Legislature includes $2.5 million for pay raises at El Dorado, but funding for pay increases at other facilities is under the control of the State Finance Council. The panel also has control of funding for other KDOC requests, such as $4.5 million set aside for treatment of a Hepatitis C outbreak.
So far, 725 offenders have tested positive for Hepatitis C, and the funding will allow the agency to treat about 400 prisoners.
KDOC will have to appear before meetings of the finance council throughout the year to seek approval for initiatives and unlock funds. The panel includes the governor and legislative leadership from both parties.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said he crafted the budget provisions that direct money to the finance council because he wanted more oversight for such a costly request, which wasn't formalized until April 30. Claeys said Werholtz should have come before a committee hearing earlier in the session to explain some of his proposals for dealing with the overcrowding crisis.
“The expectation is once legislators are fully informed of what the plan is, they will release the funds to follow the plan," Claeys said.
Kelly accused "a handful" of legislators of misleading others into agreeing to the restrictions placed on corrections funding, which were added to the third budget offer presented to the House in the closing hours of the session. The offer broke an impasse in which moderate Republicans and Democrats were holding the budget hostage in hopes of forcing a vote on Medicaid expansion.
The governor's administration said lawmakers knew about the extent of problems within the corrections system and the ideas for addressing those problems.
"There were certainly multiple ideas that were discussed in different meetings," Claeys said, "but to say that this plan was discussed in detail in any meeting with legislators is not correct. There were certainly pieces of this plan, but if I were expected to know that $35 million was going to be spent on raises and outsourcing of inmate beds, then the secretary certainly should have known well enough to present this in February."
Werholtz, who took over the agency in mid-January, said there are nearly 400 employee vacancies at state-run detention facilities across the state. At El Dorado, one of three prisons rocked by inmate riots in 2017 and 2018, there have been 70 to 90 open positions in recent months.
The secretary said it was unfair that the approved budget only allows for immediate pay raises at El Dorado.
"It creates a morale problem," Werholtz said. "It creates a headache in setting up separate pay scales. It's impossible for me to tell an officer who has been beaten or stabbed while working at Hutchinson or Lansing that the work she or he has done is of less value than the work that's done by an officer at El Dorado who encounters the same risks."
Werholtz hoped to ease the long hours by staff at El Dorado by closing a cell house there, which would eliminate 258 beds but require fewer guards to be on duty. Claeys objected to the cost of the proposed outsourcing of beds to allow the cell house to close.
Even if the prison quickly receives 80 qualified applications as a result of the pay increase, Werholtz said, the new employees will need two months of training.
“It would be great for him to stand in front of a hearing in an open meeting so that you and I can hear that and understand what his plan is," Claeys said. "This is why there’s oversight."
For Werholtz, the root of the overcrowding problem is a policy of handling criminal behavior in Kansas by locking more people up for longer periods of time.
Werholtz previously served as KDOC secretary from 2002 to 2010. When he returned to the agency, the prison population had increased by 1,400 in eight years.
Statewide prison capacity is 9,920, Werholtz said, but there are now 10,108 inmates. The prison population is expected to grow by 377 in the next 12 months.
"There's a real question about how much public safety you get by locking somebody up for 36 months as opposed to 24 months," Werholtz said. "Does that really have any impact on changing their behavior? Does it really have any level of impact on crimes in the community?"
The state could spend more than $100 million to build more prison space, Werholtz said, or lawmakers could accept the political risk of reducing prison time for criminals. The concern is that an individual who leaves prison early will commit another crime, and such isolated incidents will dominate the policy discussion.
"What we want are fewer victims," Werholtz said. "We can never offer certainty. But if we can shorten prison stays and have the level of victimization and the level of criminal activity stay the same, that's probably an acceptable trade-off."