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Overcrowding Forces Wyandotte County To Keep Farming Out Inmates To Other Jails

Avery Gott
KCUR 89.3
The capacity of Wyandotte County Detention Center was 308 when it opened in 1990. Today, it houses more than 400 inmates.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas has approved a proposal to renew contracts with jails in other counties to house some of its inmates.

Wyandotte County Detention Center caps its in-house inmate population at 430, but over 500 inmates are in custody. Jail Warden Jeffery Fewell said space and a lack of staff contribute to the need to house inmates elsewhere, which he calls “farming out.”

“We have approximately 81, 82 deputies and we’re about 30 short,” Fewell said. “You can’t appropriately hold the amount of inmates that are required if you don’t have the staff to supervise them. Therein lies more farm-outs.”

The contract renewal last week comes amid ongoing controversy from the Jackson County Detention Center. A 2017 audit found serious issues including a lack of staff and poor living conditions. Over the summer, Kansas City, Missouri, ended its contract with the county facility, opting instead to house municipal inmates in temporary jails.

But that has posed its own problems. At one temporary jail, there have been six escapes, a death and most recently, an attempted suicide.

Wyandotte County has taken a different approach to their overcrowding problem. After a 1985 lawsuit was filed against the jail for poor conditions, the county built a new facility that began housing inmates in 1990. At the time, it had 308 beds. Susan Alig, an attorney with the jail, said it’s been full since the beginning.

“In terms of when the facility was built, it was almost immediately at capacity,” Alig said. “It’s been running pretty full for a long time.”

Shortly after the new jail opened, the Kaw View Juvenile Detention Center closed and the kids were moved into the adult building. Then, the Kansas City, Kansas, jail closed and municipal inmates were also moved in.

The consolidation caused overcrowding, so in 1996 the UG began transferring inmates to other jails despite the expense. Fewell said it can cost as much as $55 per day to house one inmate in another county jail. 

“You have to process them, you have to transport them, and then you have to pay for their housing costs, well, that’s a lot of money,” Fewell said. “The farm-out business is a market.”

The UG still relies on the practice to temporarily relieve its over-crowding problem. Today, it houses 83 inmates in other counties, totaling as much as $4,565 per day, or, if that number stays flat, around $1.5 million per year.

Lyon County Detention Center, southwest of Topeka, currently houses two UG inmates. Sheriff Jim Cope said his detention center frequently houses inmates from other counties.

“Some of them we’ve maybe had for 30 or 60 days, others we have for only 2 weeks,” he said. “We try to avoid those short stays because it takes manpower to transport them back and forth.”

Cope said his detention center charges $45 per day to house one inmate.

To increase the capacity of the Wyandotte County Jail, the UG began assigning two inmates to a single cell in 1997, according to documents from the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s office.

Fewell admitted that the practice, called double-bunking, is not recommended by the American Correctional Association. But, he said, it is not against regulation.

“We’ve had contractors come in, we’ve been audited,” Fewell said. “They determined that we can double-bunk. There are certain risks when you do that, however, there are certain benefits too.”

By double-bunking, the jail can house 200 more adult inmates than its original capacity, despite losing two floors to the juvenile facility. To free space in the adult jail, the UG is building a new juvenile detention facility that is set to open next year.

Fewell said the move will allow him to increase the adult inmate state cap to about 500. But, if the inmate population continues its upward trend, the building will still be over capacity.

The inmate population in Wyandotte County peaked over the summer and is now at 518, one of its highest points in the last five years, according to data from the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office. Fewell said police are not booking more inmates into the jail, instead, the increase is due to longer sentences from the city and district courts.

“Both of those entities are holding inmates longer than they ever have in five years,” Fewell said. “When there’s an increase in an average length of stay, your overall population increases dramatically.”

Avery Gott is a news intern at KCUR.

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