By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
A state senator is pushing for a legislative investigation of recent uprisings and disturbances at a 1,500-inmate prison near Wichita.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, on Monday proposed having legislative auditors look into incidents at the El Dorado Correctional Facility on at least four separate days in May, June and July.
Accounts from the state employees’ union and news reports from the Wichita Eagle, the Kansas City Star and The Associated Press indicate incidents took place that involved inmates refusing to return to their cells or even taking over parts of the state-run facility. The Star found evidence of one inmate having a weapon and prisoners starting a fire during one of the incidents.
“I think that we need some more transparency in the Department of Corrections,” Kelly said. “There have been a number of incidents that have occurred … at our facilities that have gone unreported until others found out — I think particularly the media.”
Todd Fertig, spokesman for the corrections department, said the agency has “never had a lack of transparency.”
Additionally, he indicated agency officials aren’t opposed to an audit.
“We’re doing all that we can to make sure that all of our facilities are run in a safe and secure manner both for the staff and for the offenders that live there,” Fertig said.
Because the panel of lawmakers that makes auditing decisions doesn’t meet often, it is not expected to vote on whether to proceed with the audit until October.
The news of disturbances at the El Dorado prison comes amid reports of a staffing shortage. The state employees’ union has expressed concern the shortage makes for unsafe conditions.
Fertig said Monday that “recruitment efforts are ongoing” and the staffing situation has improved from 87 vacant uniformed staff positions on July 5 to 73 such vacancies on July 24. The department also emptied a cell house by moving inmates to other facilities across Kansas, he said, freeing up 14 staff for assignment elsewhere.
“These adjustments, combined with continued recruitment efforts that have produced a group of incoming staff, have greatly relieved some of the staffing shortage felt earlier in the summer,” he said. “The incoming staff are still in training, and their additions will show in staffing numbers in coming weeks.”
The agency also revealed in recent days that El Dorado warden James Heimgartner has accepted a different job within the department.
Meanwhile, legislative auditors on Monday called into question the department’s estimate of costs related to proposed construction at Lansing Correctional Facility.
The auditors concluded — contrary to estimates from the department — that it would be cheaper for the state to issue bonds for the project rather than have a private company build and operate the facility. In the latter scenario, the state would eventually purchase the facility after 20 years of leasing.
The auditors’ conclusions contradict presentations that department officials made to lawmakers during the 2017 session. Auditors said the agency’s estimates “were missing key variables and used inconsistent assumptions that tended to favor a lease-purchase option.”
At issue are plans for a new complex to replace and consolidate two buildings at Lansing that the department says need to be modernized, in part to allow for less staff-intensive prisoner monitoring.
The agency predicts it would be able to reduce staffing from 686 to 392 employees while increasing inmate capacity from about 2,400 to about 2,600.
Kelly described the audit findings as part of a “pattern” at the department that includes the agency withholding information about disturbances at El Dorado.
“They don’t report incidents that happen at their facilities, and when they put the (Lansing) proposal forward they didn’t give us the correct information,” she said, adding that she believes the department wants to lease from a private company. “That really was their push. They wanted us to choose that option or allow them to choose that option.”
The chairman of the legislative audit committee, Abilene Republican Rep. John Barker, said the results of the Lansing audit will be helpful for making decisions. But he rejected any notion that it calls the department’s credibility into question.
“I don’t have any concerns about that,” he said. “Good people always can differ.”
Fertig said his agency appreciates the auditors’ work.
“The real cost of funding the project, and the best means for funding it, won’t be known until the bids are received from potential builders,” he said. “The agency’s stance remains what it always has been, which is that we are open to whichever funding option is the best for the state.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.