Kansas corrections secretary anxious burnout exacerbating uniformed-officer shortage

State prison system struggles to fill 380 officer vacancies, 440 job openings overall

By: - January 20, 2023 10:40 am
Jeff Zmuda, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the shortage of uniformed officers in the prison system was fueling employee burnout and required ongoing support from the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly for salary increases to recruit to fill 380 vacancies statewide. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Jeff Zmuda, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the shortage of uniformed officers in the prison system was fueling employee burnout and required ongoing support from the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly for salary increases to recruit to fill 380 vacancies statewide. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — The secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections said 12-hour or longer shifts required of uniformed officers at the El Dorado and Lansing prisons during the past 18 months due to an inability to recruit and retain employees was pushing workers to a breaking point.

Secretary Jeff Zmuda said extended shifts, mandated overtime and little prospect of relief from the workload was grinding down dedicated employees who stuck with the agency despite wages that couldn’t compete with offers in neighboring states. He told Kansas House members it was imperative stopgap financial incentives remain in place or risk a surge in job vacancies. Job vacancies at state prisons in Kansas hovered at 380 slots for uniformed officers, including nearly 100 at El Dorado and Lansing prisons.

“I worry that we’re riding them hard and we’ve been doing it for a such a long time that we’re at risk of hitting a breaking point with many of them,” Zmuda said. “They can only do so much.”

He said the Department of Corrections closed units and mothballed 1,600 inmate beds to allow reassignment of staff, but the vacancy rate among uniformed officers across the prison system averaged 21%. Four of the state’s correctional facilities had vacancy rates above 25%. The state’s juvenile prison had a uniformed officer vacancy rate of 38%, which Zmuda declared “way too high.”

Traditionally, the corrections department focused on inmate bed capacity when dealing with the agency’s budget. The system has a maximum of 10,200 beds and currently served 8,700 inmates. The budgeting reference point has shifted, Zmuda said, to the number of officers at their posts and sections of prisons that could be staffed. The inmate population has been growing and the state could find itself in the position of contracting with county jails or out-of-state private prison companies to take overflow, he said.

“At some point,” Zmuda said, “we’re going to have an intersection of our adult population growing and our ability to staff. It’s going to get to a point where we might not have the staff to take more in.”

The state corrections department has struggled to recruit qualified applicants for years and typically failed to compete with other employers in terms of salary, work hours and issues related to issues related to a prison job, Zmuda said.

The job of a corrections officer extracted a toll in terms of life expectancy and higher rates of divorce, obesity, depression and anxiety, he said.

“Our people witness, participate, hear things that are hard to get out of your mind,” the corrections secretary said. “It’s tough stuff. They’re first responders to someone that’s in a bad way and it’s traumatic for them.”

Gov. Laura Kelly recommended the Legislature approve a 5% raise for qualified employees in state government and continue supplemental compensation for corrections department employees. In addition, an effort would be made to amend state law to loosen restraints on payment of bonuses to state employees, a reform that would be of use to the corrections department.

Members of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee appeared empathetic to challenges of keeping the prison system operational.

Rep. John Resman, an Olathe Republican and retired deputy sheriff, said state corrections officers assigned 12-hour shifts sometimes worked 18 hours in a day to cover absences. He said the predicament was “pretty extraordinary and pretty dangerous.”

The patchwork of incremental wage increases, differentials offered officers in their first year on the job and one-time bonus payments need to be funded by the Legislature and governor or the corrections department could lose more ground to states such as Nebraska and Colorado that paid corrections officers better, said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat.

Rep. Adam Turk, a Shawnee Republican also on the House committee, said the agency ought to concentrate recruiting on members of the Kansas National Guard.

“That population is exactly who you want to be in front of as often as you can,” he said.

Zmuda said other states were more aggressive than Kansas in raising compensation. Kansas offered a first-year officer $21.76 per hour following raises approved the past couple years. That trailed the starting wage for a corrections officer in Nebraska, which was dangling $28 an hour. Nebraska slashed its vacancy number from 427 to 119 in one year after implementing a big pay surge. The money was sufficient to recruit 270 officers from other states to Nebraska.

Colorado has dealt with its state correctional officer shortage by offer hiring bonuses up to $7,000, retention bonuses up to $4,000, referral bonuses to workers of $2,000.

Zmuda said another factor for Kansas was the low unemployment rate in Lansing, Norton, El Dorado and Larned where prison facilities were located.

Nearly 40% of state prison inmates in Kansas served sentences of less than two years in duration, Zmuda said. In Kansas, he said it cost an average of $41,000 annually to incarcerate an adult and $187,000 annually to incarcerate a youth.

Meanwhile, the corrections secretary said the availability of Pell grants for inmates in Kansas had expanded enrollment in post-secondary education programs by 50% in the past year. From 2020 to 2022, 346 Kansas inmates earned degrees or certificates while incarcerated. Before the second-chance financial aid became available, 749 inmates earned academic credentials from 2001 to 2020.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.