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Kansas Poised To Use Private Prisons: ‘We’re Out Of Options’

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The Kansas Department of Corrections will be spending millions on housing state inmates in private prisons and county jails.

The state spending review panel is freeing up some of the money the Kansas Department of Corrections asked for to place inmates in county jails and private facilities. Prison officials say it’s a last resort.

Desperate to relieve the strain on state prisons that are already over capacity, officials appealed to the State Finance Council to spend about $10 million on contracts with outside facilities to house as many as 400 inmates.

All that money is in the state budget, but the Finance Council, which includes top legislative leaders and the governor, only agreed to unleash $4.4 million at a meeting Wednesday. They expressed concerns about the quality and safety private prisons out of state.

“Conditions could be worse there,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, “than what we have in Kansas.”

Roger Werholtz, who retired from his second stint as corrections secretary less than a week ago, returned to the Statehouse to make the case for the spending.

He told the panel that the money will cover the housing, food, and basic medical costs for 160 inmates. But, speaking with reporters later, he said it won’t be enough to alleviate the effects of overcrowding.

“The major issues for which we need beds did not get resolved,” Werholtz said. “I don't know what they think is going to happen with these folks.”

Corrections officials say there’s been a spike in violent incidents and that access to health care, counseling, and job training for inmates is inadequate. Inmates are being swapped in and out of solitary confinement because there’s not enough space. Maximum security inmates are being double-bunked, with two inmates in one cell. Staff are overworked.

The department still wants another $5.47 million for contracts to cover an additional 200 prison beds at outside facilities. The Finance Council decided to schedule a meeting at a later date to consider that spending.

The Department of Corrections began taking bids for prison bed contracts from out-of-state prisons and Kansas county jails in May.

Werholtz told the council that department staff had visited a private prison in Arizona that had submitted a bid. The department declined to specify to reporters the location or the company that owns that prison.

A spokesman for private prison company CoreCivic would not confirm the officials had visited one of its prisons in Arizona, but did confirm that the company had bid for contracts in Kansas.

But the legislative leaders on the Finance Council want the corrections department to put inmates in county jails first.

“At least let’s do that,” Denning said, “before we go the private route.”

Werholtz said the corrections department was already prioritizing housing inmates in Kansas’s county jails because they’re closer and easier to manage, but the jails don’t have the space to alleviate much of the crowding at state prisons.

“We’re then passing our overcrowding problem back to the county jail,” he said. “That’s going to be the consequence.”

Interim Corrections Secretary Chuck Simmons said the department received bids from four county jails located in Kansas, and had developed contracts with three: Cherokee, Wilson and Kiowa counties. The department already has contracts with jails in Cloud and Jackson counties.

Gov. Laura Kelly said contacting with private prisons isn’t the ideal solution, but that Kansas is out of options.

“We don’t have much of a choice at this point.” she said. “I am really, truly, very concerned about staff safety and inmate safety.”

As a condition of releasing the funds, the Finance Council is requiring the Department of Corrections to keep open a cell block at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The department wanted to close the block to reduce strain on corrections officers, many of whom work double shifts for days on end.

“We are absolutely burning those staff out and it’s not sustainable,” Werholtz said. “We’re having to lock people down right now because of their violent behavior, instead of working with them to change that violent behavior.”

Kelly declared a state of emergency at that prison in February. Werholtz said staff there had worked more than 2,000 double shifts since. But the panel still argued that every block at the prison should remain open.

“We need a commitment from the administration that they’re going to be open at this time,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman.

The council also nixed the spending of $3 million to reduce crowding in the women’s prison by moving 120 inmates to the state’s juvenile facility.

It did, however, authorize spending $9 million to raise the salaries of the state’s overworked prison staff and $4.5 million to pay for Hepatitis C treatment for inmates.

Werholtz warned that the strain on the prison system could get worse as the prison population is projected to grow by hundreds of people over the next decade.

“We’re either looking at increasing costs or changing policy,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a substantial change in sentencing policy.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports out of Topeka for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics. You can send her an email at nomin at kcur dot org, or reach her on @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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