Kansas suspends visitations at state's largest prison due to staff shortages

The total vacancies have now doubled since the beginning of the summer, the state secretary of corrections says


By Robert A. Cronkleton
The Kansas City Star
        
LANSING, Kan. — Kansas prison officials have modified operations and suspended visitation at the Lansing Correctional Facility as the number of vacancies among its correctional officers continues to climb.

In a letter to inmates and families dated the day before Thanksgiving, Kansas Secretary of Corrections Jeff Zmuda wrote that the steady decline in the number of staff to operate the prison continues.

"This decline has been steady throughout the calendar year 2021 and the total vacancies have now doubled since the beginning of the summer," Zmuda said in the letter.

In this Feb. 15, 2006 file photograph, guard tower one overlooks the back side of the Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kan.
In this Feb. 15, 2006 file photograph, guard tower one overlooks the back side of the Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

As of a week ago, Lansing had 83 uniformed staff vacancies, Carol Pitts, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections told The Star. That's about 26% of the 315 uniformed positions at the prison, according to its latest annual report.

In July, the prison moved its staff from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts to keep "as normal of an operational schedule as possible and to provide staff needed time off," Zmuda said.

"Months into that schedule, more staff have left, in part, due to the increasing hours worked each day and week, and we simply must make additional adjustments to facility operations," he said. Those adjustments are likely to remain in place for an extended period.

The suspension of all in-person visitation at the prison begins Dec. 6.

"We heard clearly from many of you how difficult the suspension of in-person visitation was upon residents and families during the height of the coronavirus pandemic," Zmuda wrote. "I expect that will be the same again, and wish that we could have at least made it through the holiday season before this became necessary. Regrettably we cannot."

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced last week that state employees in department struggling with staffing shortages will receive pay raises and bonuses this week.

The money is going to those in the Kansas prison system and state hospitals whose employees have complained of dangerous situations created by understaffing and exacerbated by labor shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staff shortages contributed to two attacks on correctional officers by inmates at the Lansing prison this month, said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents corrections employees. In both attacks, the officers were taken to the hospital.

The most recent attack occurred about 4:45 a.m. Monday when an inmate assaulted the officer with a bar of soap in a sock, LaFrenz said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. The officer had multiple facial lacerations and was taken to a hospital for treatment.

"This attack happened less than a month after the previous inmate assault that put a CO into the intensive care unit," she said. "Also like that previous assault, this CO was working alone on a unit with over 100 inmates."

In the previous assault, which occurred Nov. 3, the officer suffered facial fractures and spent the night in the intensive care unit. An inmate attacked the officer and repeatedly struck the officer in the face and head, according to a statement by LaFrenz at the time. The officer was assigned to a pod of about 127 inmates that was designed to operate with one corrections officer.

"Since the assault on 3 November, we have heard no reports of staffing changes, policy updates, or any other measures to alleviate the dangerous conditions at Lansing," she said. "We call on the Kansas Department of Corrections to step in immediately to fix the gross incompetence of the management of LCF for the health and safety of the workers there."

Because of the staffing shortages, LaFrenz said there aren't enough workers to cover shifts. So when incidents happen, it takes more time to address them.

LaFrenz called the steps corrections officials are taking a modified lockdown. Although not completely locked down, such things like yard time are limited or not available.

"This adds to the overall angst for inmates — which leads to very bad outcomes" like the assaults on the two officers, she said.

Besides the suspension of visitation, Zmuda said other changes are being made to the prison operations including:

  • The medium and maximum housing unites will be on lockdown from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day.
  • Schedule changes are being made for time in day rooms and on the yard.
  • Programming will be provided on housing units.
  • Forms will need to be submitted for books and legal material.
  • Medical and behavioral health will provided on housing units.
  • Chaplains will make rounds on housing units.
  • Canteen items will be delivered to all inmates.

Staff will be shifted to maintain opportunities for inmates working in private and correctional jobs, engaged in college classes and the welding program and working in food service, laundry, clinic and canteen.

(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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