Across the state labor shortages are hitting jails and prisons hard.
Job vacancies at state prisons in Kansas hovered at 380 slots for uniformed officers. The vacancy rate across the prison system averaged 21%, while four of the state’s correctional facilities had vacancy rates above 25%, according to a Jan. 20 article published by the Kansas Reflector. The problem carries over to county jails.
In Saline County Marilyn Leamer, human resources director, said she anticipate they will be down nine officers at the end of the month. Adding to their shortages, Saline County is in the process of building a new jail.
“Commissioners did approve us for some new positions so we can ramp up our staffing to be ready for when the jail opens,” Leamer said. “(They approved) 14 additional corrections officers for 2022 and 10 more for 2023. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get candidates for those positions.”
In Dickinson County, however, it’s a different story — the jail is at full staff.
It wasn’t always that way. In 2016, the escape of a prisoner was blamed, in part, to low staffing. On the day of the escaper, there were only two people on shift. Full-staff is 18 correction officers, including a captain, a lieutenant and four sergeants, which allows four people per shift.
Bringing the jail to full staff required a multi-prong approach, said Dickinson County Sheriff Jerry Davis.
“Right after I took office, one of the county commissioners stopped me downstairs and said he wanted to talk to me about jail staff wages and jail staff training,” Davis said.
Schedule, wages, benefits
Davis recently spoke to the correction officers and asked them what they attributed the low turnover to. There were several different responses, he said, but it all boiled down to the staff liking the work environment and their schedules, which has been in place for several years.
One week they work Monday and Tuesday, are off Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday; the next week they are off Monday and Tuesday, on Wednesday and Thursday, and off Friday through Sunday, giving them a three-day weekend, every other week.
When broken down, it’s equivalent to only working six months a year. Add in two weeks of vacation, it’s down to 5 1/2 months. Employees on staff longer have four weeks of vacation a year, bringing their work days down to the equivalent of five months a year.
“They said they like that schedule,” Davis said. “They also want to work where they live. No one wants to commute. They also like the retirement package — their exact words were, ‘pretty darn good benefits.’”
On the correction side, employees are covered under the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System.
Wages have also come up since Davis was elected in 2020.
When he took office in 2021, starting salary for a corrections officer with no experience was $14.12 an hour. Today it is $17.15. Davis said the county is working on incrementally on raising salaries to be competitive.
Salary alone is not the impetus to stay in a job. In Salina, a starting salary is $19 an hour with a sign-on bonus of $1,500 plus $500 when officers make it six months and $1,000 if they make it to their one-year anniversary. Despite the starting salary and bonuses, they are having trouble with retention and recruitment, Leamer said.
If a correction’s officer is going to spend 12 hours a day in the jail, they need a positive work environment and to get along with their co-workers.
“This place is like family,” said Brandon Skinner, Dickinson County Jail correction officer with one year in service. “I stay here because the people I work with are real fun. Morale is pretty good.”
There are several components to formulating high morale, especially in a position that could otherwise be difficult.
For one, Davis said the recent remodel of the jail made a tremendous difference.
“Our old facility was a dive,” Davis said. “The new facility and the whole new environment — it will do wonders for people.”
Leadership can also dictate morale. Davis credits Capt. Stephen Kency and Lt. Connie Jaderborg, who’s been with the agency for 18 years, for the retention. When talking to the officers Davis said he heard variations of the words camaraderie and cohesiveness.
“They said the people they work with are great to work with,” Davis said. “And they said you get to work with your partners and your partners all know what to do, and the administration back there allows them to do it. They don’t micromanage, and that was huge.”
Additionally, Kency and Jaderborg won’t hesitate to step in and work a shift, if they need to. While they are at full staffing, people do need time off periodically. Administrators will fill in and go on the floor doing the work. Even Davis recently filled in when another body was needed.
“We can manage sometimes when we don’t have a full staff, but there are certain situations when we want to have three people go into the pod and that’s at lock down,” he said. “I came in and helped lockdown on Sunday night. We had one inmate they knew was going to pose a problem and they were going to move her from one cell to another after lockdown. They knew she was going to come out fighting. And she did. What surprised me is this, new staff members — one who’s been here less than six months and the female corrections officer who’s been here a year — they basically stepped in front of me and handled the whole situation. It was kind of refreshing to know that they’re handling the situation.”
Linked to morale is the training the officers receive and how mistakes are handled. At the Dickinson County jail, officers get on-the-job training.
“If they have a hiccup on occasion, they don’t get ridiculed for it,” Davis said. “They get trained on how to fix it and they move on.”
The OJT covers local policies and procedures. While it is not a state requirement, Davis said he also sends the correction officers to the Kansas Jail Training Academy. The academy is a 40-hour course covering a bevy of information to include officer responsibilities such as code of conduct, survival mindset, gender responsive issues, games inmates play and staff-offender relations.
“We have sent some officers to that,” Davis said. “We haven’t gotten our newest officers there, but our goal is to have every one of our corrections officers go.”
The officers also routinely receive training on equipment such as tasers, pepper balls, and body wraps, all of which Davis said he wanted to make sure they had access to.
“Our detention officers have tasers,” he said. “That’s something they didn’t have before and they just got recertified on … the taser. They had pepper ball training — It’s like a paintball gun but it shoots pepper ball rounds. We’ve got those in the jail. We didn’t have those before. And we just got a restraint system called The Wrap. It’s a restraint system so you can subdue (an inmate’s) legs and their arms comfortably until you can get the situation under control and without injuring them.”
Davis said it was important to him to arm the correction officers with the equipment they need to keep themselves and the inmates safe. So far, the officers have not had to use any of it, but it is there if needed.
Having the right tools for the job and proper training adds to the morale which in turn leads to a safer environment in the jail and employees who are comfortable in their jobs.
“Every day they work to earn the respect of the inmates,” Davis said. “They feel comfortable going in there, not that something can’t happen, they just feel that they’re doing what they can do to see that nothing does happen. I am very proud of the staff I have in the jail. Every single one of them, they do a good job.”
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