ELLSWORTH, Kan. (AP) — Unemployment is down and wages are up in Kansas — except for corrections officers.
They are leaving state prisons in droves because of low pay, creating a public safety crisis that legislators will have to deal with on top of plugging a budget hole.
Their starting pay is about 33 percent less than the state's average hourly wage of $20.20, and overall wages are about a quarter lower than the national average. The annual turnover rate is up to nearly 30 percent. Things are so bad that the state is hiring 18-year-olds to manage hardened criminals, despite some prison leaders' misgivings.
"You don't pay me enough to get urine or feces thrown at me by an inmate," said Bruce Martin, who left his job at the state's oldest prison in Lansing in September, even though he was earning a relatively good-for-Kansas wage of about $18 an hour.
Kansas cut spending on prisons and juvenile justice programs during the Great Recession, and the current spending is still below the 2008 amount. The state also has struggled to balance its budget since Republican Gov. Sam Brownback persuaded the GOP-dominated Legislature into enacting massive income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus.
Brownback and fellow conservatives credit those cuts with boosting the state's economy and helping drop the unemployment rate to 4 percent in November, but government spending still will be pinched by at least $160 million next fiscal year. Brownback said he favors higher wages for corrections officers and he sees "decent" support among legislators but added, "The key here will be finding the resources to do it with."
In Ellsworth, where the central Kansas hills give way to the Great Plains, local leaders wooed a prison three decades ago to anchor the local economy. The area's average weekly wage has grown nearly 23 percent in four years, to $18.60 an hour, topping what some sergeants in the prison complex's red-brick buildings earn by $3.50 or more.
"It's made our work pool that we choose from smaller and we have to draw from farther and farther away," said Warden Dan Schnurr, a 30-year prison system veteran. Later, he added: "You've got people coming and going all the time."
To make the pay competitive, Kansas would need to spend at least a few million dollars a year, and the figure could be $20 million, according to state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee.
And Republican Rep. John Rubin, of Shawnee, caused a stir this fall by suggesting during a committee hearing that the necessary funds should be diverted from public schools, saying he's worried prison shifts are short-staffed, or staffed with officers working overtime or inexperienced employees.
"I'm concerned that an incident could occur in one of our correctional institutions," Rubin said.
Uniformed officers statewide received a raise in 2012, but the starting pay for a new officer is $13.61 an hour, or $28,300 a year. But the state Department of Labor reports that the state's average hourly wage rose also, to its present $20.20 an hour, or more than $42,000 a year.
And the average Kansas wage for all corrections and officers and bailiffs in 2014 was $16.39 an hour, or 24 percent less than the national figure of $21.59, according to federal data.
Several former officers at the Lansing prison, which houses 2,400 inmates north of the Kansas City area, said multiple factors, including stress and short staffing, had them finding a way out last year.
Kellon Carlyle, a former sergeant who was earning $15.38 an hour when he left in April, now hopes to land a federal building security job at more than $26 an hour.
"It's not worth it," he said of the prison job, "my health has actually improved."
More than 180 officer positions remain open at state prisons or juvenile centers, or about 9 percent of the roughly 2,000 jobs. In July, the state Department of Corrections began allowing 18-year-olds to become officers — even though professionals generally have misgivings about their maturity and judgment.
"They've got zero life skills, very little street smarts," Martin said.
The Ellsworth prison houses about 900 inmates, most of them medium-security. Even officers here who said they like their jobs and intend to stay see low pay as a problem.
Jonathan Lawrence, a sergeant earning $15 an hour, initially saw his prison job as a "stepping stone" to another job in law enforcement, but found he preferred managing inmates to police work. Yet, to support his family, he also is a part-time police officer, firefighter and Baptist church youth director.
And, he acknowledged, "I'm always keeping my options open."
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .