Kansas declares emergency over 'serious staffing shortages' at most crowded prison

4 officers, 15 inmates injured in prison fights
Posted at 1:35 PM, Feb 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-12 14:35:35-05

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas declared an emergency Tuesday at its most crowded maximum-security state prison over what Gov. Laura Kelly called "serious staffing shortages" inside a lockup that's had multiple inmate disturbances over the past two years.

The declaration from Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz allows the El Dorado Correctional Facility to require employees to work longer shifts. But Kelly told a gathering of state employees that she also will pursue additional funding for the prison system and changes in sentencing laws that could lessen prison crowding.

"The shortage there is really a huge safety and security issue," Kelly told reporters before speaking to dozens of government workers at the Statehouse. "This is not something anybody wanted to do, but it absolutely had to be done."

The move comes as neighboring states face problems in crowded prisons. Nebraska's prison system faces a July 2020 deadline set by state lawmakers there to reduce prison overcrowding, but its director has acknowledged it probably will miss it. In Oklahoma, the state's prisons directors is seeking more than $800 million to build two new prisons.

Both states have had deadly prison riots. While riots in Kansas haven't cause inmate or staff deaths, the state has spent at least $414,000 repairing damage and replacing equipment from four riots at three prisons, including the one in El Dorado. A riot in July 2018 at the El Dorado prison, about 30 miles east of Wichita, cost the state nearly $177,000.

Werholtz said the prison has 86 vacancies on it staff of fewer than 500 employees. He and other corrections officials have said that staffing problems have not eased despite efforts in recent years to boost pay for corrections officers.

Meanwhile, the prison's population has risen over the past eight months, partly because the state is shifting inmates as it builds a new prison in Lansing to replace its oldest lockup.

The El Dorado prison held 2,029 inmates as of Monday, or 74 more than its state capacity of 1,955 inmates — reset after former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration increased the number housed two-to-a-cell. The prison held an average of 1,854 inmates a day during 12 months that ended with June 2018.

AP writers Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb., and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this story.