- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - State correctional officers are being put at risk because of critical staffing shortages in state prisons, the interim director of the Kansas Association of State Employees told a legislative committee.

Rebecca Proctor told the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits about instances of inmates attacking guards at the Hutchinson and Lansing prisons, the Lawrence Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1ACBJ6Q) reported. She said that recently at the Topeka Correctional Facility, which houses female inmates, employees were required to stay over for a second full shift because there was no one to relieve them.

The legislative committee may consider measures to standardize the pension benefits of Corrections Department employees. But Proctor said wages are part of the staffing problems and should be addressed before pension benefits.

“Improving retirement benefits for correctional officers is a great goal, but retirement benefits are meaningless if employees cannot be retained on the job long enough to earn those benefits,” she said.

The wage issue is particularly noticeable in Lansing, where the state prison is just a few miles away from a federal prison, where the minimum starting pay is more than $39,000 a year and can be as high as $51,702, depending on experience. By comparison, the starting pay for a state correctional officer is $13.61 an hour, or about $28,000 a year.

“Many employees stay at Lansing long enough to gain some experience and training, and then make the move to the federal facility,” she said.

Proctor said the state also competes with county jails for employees because many of the jails also pay more than the state.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay confirmed that job vacancy rates in the state prison system range from 10 to 15 percent at each facility. He says low wages and dangerous working conditions are a big part of the problem.

“Being a correctional officer is a difficult and challenging job,” he said. “We can’t hire just anybody for the job. Every day, they face the challenge of working with inmates who’ve been deemed fit to be incarcerated for felony crimes, and the inmates do not have the best behaviors.”

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who also chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, suggested that if the officers want more pay, they should consider volunteering to become unclassified employees, which would mean giving up their civil service protection. They then could join a new kind of retirement plan being launched next year that requires a smaller contribution from the state.

Proctor said she did not think most members of her union would accept that tradeoff.

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Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com

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