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With Prisons Overflowing, Kansas Considers Outsourcing To Counties And Private Outfits

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Kansas prisons are currently over capacity. Contracting with outside facilities could relieve the state's underpaid and overworked prison staff.

Kansas may soon turn to private contractors to take the overflow from its crowded prisons, raising questions about growing costs and the reliability of for-profit jails.

That plan ran into complications over the weekend when lawmakers insisted on a closer review from a state commission to OK some of the line-by-line spending. But taxpayers could soon be spending almost $36 million more to deal with a range of problems in the prison system.

Last month, Gov. Laura Kelly proposed changes to the state’s budget that included:

  • $16.4 million in contracts for 600 outsourced prison beds
  • $11.5 million in raises for the state’s prison staff
  • $4.5 million worth of Hepatitis C treatment for inmates
  • $3 million to move 120 inmates from the state’s women’s prison to an empty unit in its juvenile prison
  • $340,000 for stab-proof vests for staff

But following a heated week at the Statehouse, the Kansas Legislature only gave a fraction of that money immediately.
Lawmakers added just $5.5 million to the corrections budget for contracts next year, enough funding for only 200 prison beds. The Legislature also decided to give a pay raise only to employees of El Dorado Correctional Facility, at a cost of another $2.5 million. It also funded the stab-proof vests.

The State Finance Council, a board consisting of Gov. Laura Kelly and high-ranking members of the Legislature, will decide the rest of an additional $27.6 million in spending.

Now the Kansas Department of Corrections will have to make its case for that funding in front of the State Finance Council later this year.

Kelly, speaking to reporters on Monday, said she hopes to use her position on the finance council to clear the way for the added spending on prisons.

“That’s sort of a pain,” she said, “but certainly doable.”

But Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said the state’s prisons need the money now. The DOC has already taken contract bids to outsource 600 inmates to county jails or private prisons next year.

“The problem’s immediate,” he told reporters on Saturday. “I don’t know when that money is going to be released.”

Solutions For Overcrowding

State prisons currently have a capacity of 9,916 people. As of May 6, they hold 10,022 people, with a projected population of 10,655 by next year.

Werholtz said he had repeatedly told the Legislature about overcrowding problems, including increased inmate violence, danger to staff and inmates not getting the mental health treatment or training that they need.

“I want something to lower the pressure in the system so we can operate it more safely,” he said. “We’ve laid out in detail, with money figures attached, what it would cost to fix the problem.”

With that in mind, Kelly last week asked legislators to put an additional $16.4 million in the state’s budget for “contract beds” — agreements with outside prisons to house Kansas inmates for a fee. The proposal would essentially rent 600 prison beds and everything else it takes to keep inmates locked up for $75 each per day.

Now that the Legislature has awarded enough funding for only 200 beds, Werholtz said the DOC will still consider bids from outside contractors. But it is still deciding how those beds will be used. He said in a phone interview that the department has three major needs: to reduce crowding in the system overall, to increase the number of solitary confinement units and to move some inmates out of El Dorado Correctional Facility to relieve staff, some of whom work 16-hour days.

“We have to choose,” he said. “Two hundred beds is only sufficient to partially address any of those three.”

Some of those contract bids could go to county jails in Kansas. The state already contracts with two county jails, in Jackson and Cloud counties in the north-central part of the state, to house about 80 inmates at a cost of about $45 per inmate per day.

But most likely, contracts will be awarded to private prisons outside of the state with room to take in more inmates and the ability to ship them to the new locations.

Private prisons may have a poor reputation, but Werholtz said the state could successfully monitor any contracts with them.

“There’s nothing inherently good or inherently bad about either a public or a private prison,” Werholtz said. “It all hinges on who’s operating it, what resources they have available to them, and how closely you monitor the terms of the contract.”

Werholtz said the DOC would track security, operations and mental and behavioral health programs, possibly sending a full-time staff member to work on site if one contract facility takes on hundreds of inmates.

However, he said he would prefer to contract with county jails in Kansas, where inmates can be closer to their families and the medical services provided by the DOC provides in state prisons. But the state’s county jails won’t have enough beds.

“We’ll look at those first,” Werholtz said. “But I’m not optimistic that that will satisfy all our needs.”

Among those needs are 300 beds for people assigned to solitary confinement.

As of May 6, nearly 900 people were in solitary confinement in Kansas. It’s used as a form of discipline or to isolate inmates who exhibit suicidal tendencies, have a contagious illness, intimidate witnesses or attack others. The state has to swap them in and out because there aren’t enough beds.

“In order to put somebody in who’s engaged that kind of behavior, we’ve got to take somebody out who just did the same thing, maybe two or weeks prior to that,” Werholtz said. “That makes it much more difficult to discourage that sort of behavior.”

Staff in private prisons, however, are often inexperienced and paid less than employees of public prisons, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the nonprofit Sentencing Project, based in Washington, DC.

“Private prison operators have promised many things to public officials. They say that they can keep people housed in prison at less cost to the state. They told their shareholders that they're going to make a profit,” Mauer said. “If you want to cut costs in order to meet both of those goals, the main cost is personnel.”

Mauer says moving inmates out of state can affect inmates’ quality of life in other ways.

“If you’re far away from your home state, that means your family visits are going to be limited,” he said. “If you have a legal case pending, it’s going to be very difficult to meet with your attorney.”

Sentencing Reform

Ultimately, Werholtz said, lawmakers will have to contend with the root cause of the problem: the ever-growing prison population. He credits the growth to the state’s sentencing guidelines, which determine the length of prison or probation time.

Those recommended sentences can only be reduced through legislative action. And the DOC’s aging computer system would need time to adjust to those changes, Werholtz said.

“You’re looking at, at an absolute minimum, a two-year process,” he said. “More likely a three or three-and-a-half-year process.”

In the meantime, he predicts the state’s prisons will remain full, with contract beds catching the overflow, and costs increasing every year.

“We’re going to be overcrowded,” he said, “for the foreseeable future.”

Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can send her an email at nomin at kcur dot org, or reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.

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

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