'We are at a very critical stage': 20% of Shawnee County corrections officer positions are vacant

Tim Hrenchir
Topeka Capital-Journal
Shawnee County corrections officer Andrew Towle makes his routine round check inside T-Module at the correctional facility Thursday morning.

Starting pay has risen in recent years to $19.28 an hour for officers at the Shawnee County Department of Corrections.

Still, that department is having considerable trouble filling those jobs.

About 53 of its 271 current positions for corrections specialists, or 20%, remain unfilled, said the department's director, Brian Cole.

The department's officers are consequently being forced to work significant amounts of overtime, which takes them away from their families while making the atmosphere at their workplace increasingly tense, Cole told The Topeka Capital-Journal.

He said while he wouldn't call the current situation a full-fledged emergency, "We are at a very critical stage when it comes to staffing."

More:These 15 Shawnee County homicides have gone unsolved through the decades

Cole appeared Sept. 2 before the Shawnee County Commission as it discussed whether to eliminate some vacant corrections department jobs in an effort to save money in the 2022 county budget.

Commissioners chose not to do that after they heard Cole explain why the county needs to fill those vacant jobs instead of eliminating them at the Shawnee County Jail, 501 S.E. 8th, and the Shawnee County Juvenile Detention Center, 401 S.E. 8th.

The current lack of available staffing will force the corrections department to pay out probably more than $1 million in overtime this year to its employees, Cole said.

Brian Cole, Shawnee County director of corrections, reviews grievance letters from inmates Thursday morning before speaking with The Capital-Journal.

More corrections officers fatigued, unhappy

Meanwhile, he said, the department is seeing rising fatigue and increased unhappiness among officers who are being deprived of precious time with their families, he said.

Cole said at least five of the department's employees who resigned this year indicated during their exit interviews that they left specifically because of the forced overtime and planned for their next job to be somewhere without forced overtime.

The staffing crunch has also forced the department to reduce services it provides to its inmates, Cole said.

The jail almost every day finds itself having to go "on lockdown," which involves confining all inmates to their cells while allowing them out only for court appearances and medical appointments, he said.

The inmates, who would prefer to be out of their cells, consequently become increasingly unhappy and more likely to act out, Cole said.

The corrections department between Jan. 1 and Sept. 9 this year recorded 2,005 inmate disciplinary incidents, up from 1,985 during the same time period last year, said Maj. Tim Phelps, the corrections department's deputy director.

Still, those figures are well below the corrections department's totals for 2019, 2018 and 2017, when it recorded 3,086, 2,943 and 2,780 disciplinary incidents, respectively, according to figures provided by Phelps.

"So we saw a precipitous drop off in 2020 — likely due to the months of significantly lower population (March to September) — and then we have had a small increase in the number of incidents in 2021," he said.

A mask hangs Thursday on the handle leading into a segregated room in the medical administration module of the Shawnee County Correctional Facility.

Many corrections departments short-staffed across nation

Shawnee County's corrections department is one of many nationwide that face significant staffing concerns, Phelps said.

He noted that staffing shortages last month caused the state of Florida to temporarily shut down three prisons in North Florida.

Fortunately, Cole said, Shawnee County's corrections department this year has reduced its number of vacancies for corrections specialist jobs to about 53 from about 71. Thirteen more applicants are going through the hiring process, he said.

Cole said the corrections department will hold a "hiring event" from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Shawnee County Jail, where anyone interested in a corrections specialist's job is encouraged to show up in the front lobby for a potential interview.