Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle
Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

Crime & Courts

Sex offenders among inmates who go missing in this Kansas community, records show

By Max Londberg

jlondberg@kcstar.com

November 10, 2017 02:01 PM

UPDATED November 10, 2017 02:52 PM

At least two dozen inmates, including two registered sex offenders, have been unaccounted for outside a Kansas Department of Corrections facility this year, according to documents shared with The Star.

Shala Perez, a correctional counselor who works at the Wichita Work Release Facility, said she’s troubled by the issue and faced retaliation after reporting it and other problems with inmates to her superiors.

“When we don’t know where these offenders are at at any given moment, we’re not doing our job and we’re not keeping the public safe,” she said. “The public needs to know before tragedy strikes.”

Perez and several KDOC employees shared dozens of records with The Star in support of the claims. Perez said they paint a picture of dysfunction at the Wichita facility, where she has worked for the past five years.

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The work release program allows inmates to leave the facility each day and work in the community.

Shala Perez

KDOC spokesman Samir Arif said he could not comment about Perez specifically, citing personnel confidentiality.

But he defended the work release program. While he didn’t address any of Perez’s allegations of misconduct, he wrote in an email that the program reduces recidivism rates and provides skills training for inmates. He said those inmates face additional scrutiny to ensure that their risk level is appropriate to work in the community and live in a minimum-security facility.

“If an inmate absconds or goes unaccounted, they are disciplined appropriate to the circumstances — and in some cases, will be re-classified at a higher security level,” he said.

The facility houses a maximum of 250 male inmates, most of whom leave the facility each day to work in the community as they serve out their sentences. Perez said inmates can work in any job but most are employed in the service, construction and manufacturing industries, including local restaurants and mechanic shops.

▪ KDOC’s website states the work release program permits inmates to leave confinement and work “under close supervision and structure.”

But in 2017, at least 24 inmates were unaccounted for somewhere outside the facility, with most instances occurring since June, records show.

One inmate, who has an indecent liberties with a child conviction on his record, was missing for a total of 50 hours in July, according to an internal email.

Another sex offender went missing for four hours in April, an internal discipline document shows.

An inmate convicted of eight counts of aggravated robbery, criminal possession of a firearm and drug possession, was missing for 48 hours in early 2017, according to an assessment report.

Other inmates skipped church services but returned by the end to “make it appear that they had been there the entire time,” an internal email stated.

At one church, a spot check at Emmanuel Baptist Church earlier this month revealed that “of the 11 offenders who had been checked out to attend that church, there were only three offenders whose presence at church could be verified,” another internal email revealed.

A disciplinary report shared with The Star showed a period in July in which there were three instances of unaccounted for inmates. When The Star made a formal record request earlier this year to obtain additional 15-day reports, KDOC said none existed. Since then, nine additional 15-day reports were forwarded from internal emails with multiple recipients to The Star. Two recipients confirmed their legitimacy.

Perez, two KDOC employees, an employee with an organization that works with KDOC and Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the state employees organization, spoke and shared information with The Star detailing the alleged misconduct.

▪ Several inmates are allowed to transfer to and remain in the Wichita Work Release Facility even when their crimes or discipline issues would normally require a placement in a higher-security facility, Perez said.

Only minimum-security inmates are allowed in the work release program, Arif said, but the records indicate altered classifications have been used to keep inmates in the program even when their offenses mandated placing them in a more secure prison.

For example, one inmate committed a drug offense earlier this year, according to an assessment report. Normally the the offense would require a transfer out of the program, Perez said. But in the inmate’s case, a KDOC employee instead requested a classification status to “allow the offender to complete the (Wichita Work Release Facility) program,” an internal email showed.

One inmate convicted of first-degree murder gained entry to the work release program through an adjusted classification, records show.

And after another inmate had a violation for possessing dangerous contraband in December 2016, a KDOC employee wrote to staff members, including Deputy Warden Jesse Howes and the facility’s head of security: “This will bust his custody to medium. I will do an exception and see if he will be approved by Central Office to remain in the program.”

There were at least three instances of altered classification used in 2017, according to the records, and at least six instances of its use or attempted use since late 2013.

Perez said two factors may be contributing to the effort to keep inmates — even those deemed too dangerous to be there — in the work release program: a share of inmates’ paychecks and a shortage of beds in other Kansas prisons.

“We used to ship them out if they did something wrong, but now with their goal of earning money, we keep that facility as full as possible,” Perez said.

▪ A recent email sent by Deputy Warden Howes commended staff for helping the facility raise $1 million from inmates toward a “room and board goal.” The state garnishes 25 percent of inmates’ paychecks as a charge for living expenses. “As of the end of May we have collected $1,006,546.66 in room and board and we still have one month left in the fiscal year!” Howes wrote in June.

Inmates paid $1.2 million toward expenses last year, according to a KDOC policy document published online. The funds are either returned to the state general fund or the correctional industries fund, or they are used to pay organizations that provide food to the facility.

Perez’s grievances come to light as the Department of Corrections faces heightened scrutiny after a summer of violent uprisings inside Kansas prisons, from Lansing Correctional Facility to El Dorado to Norton, as well as staffing shortages and space constraints.

Perez is on paid leave after being told she would lose her job. She is appealing that decision.

The issues in the Wichita program hurt taxpayers, Perez said.

“Ultimately this is taxpayer money,” she said. “Instead of state agencies being accountable and making their best effort to use those tax dollars wisely, they would rather punish those who make any effort to expose and correct wrongdoing.”

Corrections boss talks about Kansas staffing issues

Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility July 13 about an incident that occurred at the prison a few weeks ago. The correctional system in Kansas has been dealing with staff shortage issues recently.

Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg