By Jonathan Shorman

El Dorado Correctional Facility's staffing shortage constitutes an official emergency, the Kansas Department of Corrections said Tuesday in response to a complaint over mandatory 12-hour shifts for workers at the prison.

The agency will continue to use mandatory overtime when needed and rely on a 12-hour work schedule, "citing staff shortages and public safety as an officially declared emergency," Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said in a letter dated Aug. 1. Use of the 12-hour shifts will be reviewed every 90 days, the letter said.

Mandatory overtime and extended hours are allowed in emergencies under the agency's agreement with the union that represents prison workers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

"The KOSE Supplemental Agreement does not define the term 'officially declared emergency', therefore, KDOC management deemed (El Dorado prison) staff shortages resulting in the facility operating at critical staffing levels that could potentially result in a risk to public safety as an 'officially declared emergency,'" Norwood wrote in the letter.

The letter came in response to a grievance filed by KOSE over reports that some workers were being required to work 16-hour shifts. KOSE, which provided the letter to reporters, criticized the agency for not saying it had declared an emergency when the longer shifts were implemented.

"KDOC has not been transparent with KOSE by trying to deliberately hold off declaring as long as possible" an emergency, KOSE director Robert Choromanski said in an email.

"KDOC has been trying to save face and embarrassment by forcing our hard working correctional officers under the radar into working these extra, unsafe, and long hours without taking the necessary step of declaring this to be an official emergency until this afternoon."

Norwood said in a statement that a temporary staffing emergency was declared "in order to provide the KDOC maximum flexibility with staffing resources" and in response to a union grievance.

He said staffing continues "to improve with increased recruiting efforts and a reduction in the inmate population. The need to require staff to work beyond their scheduled 12 hour shift has reduced substantially."

The agency implemented 12-hour shifts in June in response to high numbers of staff vacancies. Staffing numbers have improved somewhat in the past few weeks.

As of July 24, El Dorado had 80 open positions, down from 94 on July 5. That followed a push by KDOC to recruit new workers that included sending mailers to area homes.

The prison has also dealt with multiple stabbings and episodes of inmate unrest over the past few weeks. The incidents have occurred as some inmates have been shifted from Lansing Correctional Facility to El Dorado.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, is seeking a state audit of some of the episodes of unrest. Her audit request will go forward unless a legislative committee disallows it when it meets in October.

(c)2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)