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The Kansas prison staff shortage means Lansing inmates won't be able to see their families

In-person visitation at the Lansing Correctional Facility is suspended indefinately as the Kansas Department of Corrections staffing crisis continues.
Julie Denesha
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In-person visitation at the Lansing Correctional Facility is suspended indefinately as the Kansas Department of Corrections staffing crisis continues.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has been losing staff throughout 2021. Now, it doesn't have enough people to have in-person visitation at one of its prisons. Visits were also shutdown earlier in the pandemic.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Dana Aguilar is preparing to see her son in person for what could be the last time for months.

Her son is an inmate at the Lansing Correctional Facility, where an ongoing staff shortage has triggered an indefinite halt to in-person visits starting Dec. 6.

“I’ve been in denial,” Aguilar said. “I’m gonna keep trying to schedule. ... I’ll just go out there and show up until they tell me I’m not allowed or the doors are locked.”

Job vacancies at state prisons have doubled since summer and workers are taking on mandatory overtime just to keep facilities operational. Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda said in a letter to residents and family that staff have continued to leave the department and Lansing “simply cannot continue to staff” visitations.

Medium and maximum housing units will also be locked down from 6 p.m. through 6 a.m. everyday.

“We heard clearly from many of you how difficult the suspension of in-person was upon residents and families during the height of the coronavirus pandemic,” Zmuda said in the letter. “I expect that will be the same again, and we wish that we could have at least made it through the holiday season before this became necessary. Regrettably we cannot.”

Aguilar plans to call and video chat with her son, but those are more expensive and she finds them less fulfilling than in-person visits. She said her son is more depressed after hearing the news.

“I’m hoping that he reaches out for help,” Aguilar said. “He’s really bummed out about it. They don’t give an end date, it’s just the looming (feeling of) how long is this going to go on?”

She didn’t see her son for almost a year because the pandemic prevented in-person visitation. Aguilar was planning to see her son on Christmas, but that likely won’t happen.

“I feel like I’m being punished,” she said. “I’m just really going to be glad when this is all over and we (can) put this behind us because I never want to go through this again. It's really stressful.”

Gov. Laura Kelly announced on Nov. 23 that state prison staff would get temporary raises and some employees would get one-time $3,500 bonuses, but that was after prison and union officials said staffing was the worst they had ever seen.

Kelly’s plan also proposed a base pay increase to state prison employees and 24/7 nursing staff that could cost $18 million over the next two years.

Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees union, applauded Kelly’s plan. But she said action needs to be taken immediately.

In the past month, two correctional officers at the Lansing prison were injured in attacks. LaFrenz blamed the staff shortage for the incidents. Each of the corrections officers was watching over 100 inmates on their own.

“Clearly, the administrators of Lansing Correctional Facility have made no changes to ensure the safety of the state employees that work at that facility,” LaFrenz said. “We have heard no reports of staffing changes, policy updates or any other measures to alleviate the dangerous conditions at Lansing.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.