Prison guard's death in crash after late shift spotlights Kansas staffing crisis, advocates say

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Amid a staffing shortage at the Kansas Department of Corrections, advocates say the car crash death of an El Dorado prison guard may be a sign of overworked staff.

The death of a prison guard in an early morning crash after an overnight shift may be connected to ongoing workforce shortages.

The staff shortage is at the "top of the list of challenges" at the Kansas Department of Corrections, Secretary Jeff Zmuda said Wednesday in a memo to residents and families. Staff have "longer days and work weeks" or take on extra duties.

That same day, KDOC staff member Terry E. Echols Jr. died in a car accident.

A Kansas Highway Patrol crash log states that Echols was westbound on K-254 near Greenwich in Sedgwick County. The 2017 Honda Accord he was driving "failed to yield and struck the rear of" a semi. The crash was reported just before 7 a.m.

The 32-year-old Echols died at the scene. The semi driver wasn't seriously hurt.

Echols "was driving home from his overnight shift" at El Dorado Correctional Facility, prison officials said in a Facebook post. He had worked for KDOC since 2011 and was supposed to become a parole officer in Topeka at the end of the month

An online obituary indicates services are pending.

The Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform suggested in a Facebook post that Echols fell asleep at the wheel, possibly because he was "being over worked by KDOC."

Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, offered sympathies to Echols' family, friends and co-workers but said KDOC is affected by the same labor shortage as other employers in the state.

"No matter where you go, 'now hiring' signs abound and unfortunately, our state isn't immune from the labor shortages affecting all industries throughout the state," Owens said in a statement. "However, there has been no direct correlation between the staffing shortages and the accident involving Mr. Echols."

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Owens is the vice chair of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission.

All of the state's correctional facilities are extremely short-staffed, said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

"The overworking of these people and the huge amount of hours that they're putting in are going to contribute to things like accidents because people are exhausted," the union leader said. "So I do think that the huge amount of hours is going to affect things like that and like what happened to Terry."

Echols, as a supervisor, wasn't a current member of the bargaining unit.

More:Five years after Kansas juvenile justice reforms, what's changed? What still needs fixed?

Worker shortage worse than 2019 emergency

"Staff is being forced to work 12 hour shifts and encouraged to work 16+ hours if they are willing," Brandilyn Parks, president of KCSPR, said in a statement. "The current conditions within the Kansas prison facilities resemble that of an overworked warehouse with stacks of commodities collecting dust.

"The incarcerated have for the most part been on lockdown double bunked in a cell built for one, separated from family and friends and they have received little to no rehabilitation since the dawn of the pandemic."

The staffing crisis effect on residents, Parks said, has "limited access to the tools and classes that will allow them to succeed in society as a free citizen."

In an Oct. 6 memo, Zmuda said the El Dorado prison had implemented a "modified operational schedule" and other facilities may soon follow if staffing trends continue. For residents, that means less access to programs and more time in their cells.

More:Staffing shortage at Kansas prison means inmates spend more time in cells with less access to programs

That can be bad for the public in the long run because inmates no longer have the same level of "programming demonstrated to reduce recidivism and opportunities to develop the skills needed to earn a living wage upon release to the community," Zmuda said.

In 2019, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly declared an emergency at the El Dorado prison because of workforce shortage. A staffing crisis reportedly contributed to prison riots statewide that injured officers and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

The facility had 95 vacancies at that point. Last week, the number was 107, a state union official said.

"Our current workforce challenges are unlike anything anyone can recall," Zmuda said Oct. 6.

'Pay them what they're worth'

In last week's memo, Zmuda acknowledged that changes in routines for prisoners because of staffing shortages "create stress and tension" and asked for "patience and understanding."

"It may help to know that many correctional organizations across the country are working through circumstances similar to or more dire than ours," Zmuda said. "KDOC will continue to pursue a number of strategies we believe will make a difference and improve this situation over time."

That knowledge is important, said LaFrenz, of KOSE.

"However," she said, "talking about things that are happening (elsewhere) and how they're much worse than what's happening to us is not a solution to the problem. If we don't come up with workable, real solutions for this problem ... I mean, somebody was killed last week in a car accident.

"It's going to continue, and it's going to continue to get worse."

More:Staffing shortage at Kansas prison means inmates spend more time in cells

Corrections workers put themselves at risk for public safety, she said, and the pandemic exacerbated that. Prisons had some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks, and six KDOC staff have died from COVID-19.

Entry-level pay at the prison is $18.26 per hour, no prior experience required.

That isn't a competitive wage to attract corrections workers, LaFrenz said. She said $30 would be more appropriate to out-compete with other law enforcement work in the Wichita area and state prison work in neighboring states.

"If they can't pay a competitive rate, they're always going to be the last to be able to hire," she said. "This is very simple. ... They're going to have to pay them what they're worth."

Kansas politics and prison system

LaFrenz said agency leadership and the governor's office have worked to improve the situation, particularly with pay raises, and placed the blame on legislators who control the budget.

"Who's going to staff this place, the legislators? I don't think so," LaFrenz said.

Parks, of KCSPR, criticized politicians from both political parties.

"The Kansas republicans fought an entire session for pro-life bills, while overlooking the lives of those living in a government created hell," she said. "While the Kelly administration touts positive changes that have taken place at Lansing Correctional Facility, the remaining prisons across the state have little funding for rehabilitation or training that many of the incarcerated are literally begging for."

The state's prison system exhibits a "lack of regard for human life and poor expenditure of tax dollars," Parks said. The Legislature, governor and Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission have done "little to decrease the prison population, remove sentence disparity and increase rehabilitation."

More:Kansas will start scanning prison mail, citing drug transport soaked into pages. Advocates have concerns.

The governor's office didn't respond to a request for comment by mid-afternoon Monday.

Owens, the commission chair, noted a drop in prison population from a high of 10,090 to about 8,400 currently. Fewer prisoners helps alleviate the staffing situation, he said.

Lawmakers have passed various laws and budgets "to allow KDOC to make significant strides" on substance abuse treatment, he said. The Legislature has also addressed beds for geriatric inmates, suspended drivers licenses, terminal release and substance abuse treatment for people diverted from the prison system.

"There is certainly still work to do. Our state legislature remains committed to working towards a system that takes a 'smart on crime' approach to criminal justice," Owens said. "Our corrections officers have been under a great deal of added stress during this pandemic. These front-line workers have went above and beyond in our time of need and we as a state certainly owe them a great debt of gratitude."