Kansas prison unrest points to understaffing

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A prison protest was resolved peacefully in Kansas June 29, thanks to the quick and skillful work of correctional officers who are AFT members, but the incident at El Dorado Correctional Facility highlights the chronic understaffing of state prisons, which can lead to dangerous conditions both inside the facilities and in nearby communities.

The incident began shortly after 10:30 a.m. in one wing of the prison, when about 15 inmates refused to return to their cells, and it grew to a standoff of as many as 60 prisoners who took control of the gym and a few other areas, including the yard and kitchen, says Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, an affiliate of AFT Kansas that represents more than 100 workers at El Dorado.

El Dorado Correctional Facility

Special response teams made up of AFT members who work at other prisons across the region were sent to El Dorado to assist, Choromanski said.

A state corrections spokesman reported no violence or injuries from the uprising, which ended around 5 p.m. with inmates being returned to their cells. State officials say they are reviewing what led to the protest.

"Thanks to the correctional officers of El Dorado, Ellsworth, Hutchinson, Lansing and Winfield, order is restored to El Dorado," says Choromanski. "Our correctional officers arrived home at about 8 p.m. after feeding inmates dinner when the facility was secured. Correctional officers are heroes."

AFT Kansas: 'Didn't have to happen'

The incident, following on the heels of several other recent disturbances, can be laid directly at the feet of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Earlier in the month, Brownback's own Legislature finally ended his disastrous experiment in budget cutting, which over the past five years has crippled state services across the board, from education to corrections.

While it is not known yet exactly what prompted the protest, it is a fact that Kansas correctional officers are facing mandatory 12-hour shifts for at least 90 days starting July 2, and that even though El Dorado is already short-staffed by about 120 employees, maximum security prisoners from another facility are being rapidly transferred to El Dorado. This will add further to the double-bunking of inmates.

"This didn't have to happen," says AFT Kansas President Lisa Ochs. "Rapid transfers to El Dorado, together with short-staffing, have created a powder keg. When facilities run short-staffed, bad things happen."

Understaffing and long shifts only lead to trouble, says Ochs, adding that our union and allies need to keep up pressure on the Kansas Legislature to adequately staff state prisons. Like understaffing in hospitals—a problem with which members of AFT Nurses and Health Professionals are all too familiar—Ochs points out that short-staffing in prisons puts the entire community at risk. And she wonders whether Brownback's starvation of public services has been a thinly veiled attempt to move the state toward privatization.

"The question remains: If El Dorado wasn't short-staffed, would this incident have occurred?" Ochs asks. "Ignoring staffing ratios puts everyone at risk."

AFT Kansas and the AFT will continue to push for adequate funding, staffing and services, including mental health services, in public prisons.

[Annette Licitra]