With state prisons operating near capacity, the Kansas Department of Corrections has completed plans to build two cell blocks at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The 512 new beds would make El Dorado, which opened in 1991, the state’s largest prison.
Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the plans call for opening the first cell block on Jan. 1, 2017, with the second one opening 18 months later.
Each block would have 128 cells with double bunks for medium-security inmates.
The project is expected to cost $24.3 million, and the annual cost of operating the two cell blocks will be $8.3 million.
Barclay said corrections officials will ask the Kansas Legislature next year to approve the bonds needed to finance the project. If the Legislature rejects the proposal, he said, the state will have to start housing inmates in other states or look at leasing space in county jails. Both of those options are more expensive in the long run than adding the new beds, he said.
“We are running out of capacity,” Barclay said. “We have no more space, so we’ll have to be asking for some kind of option.”
If the state ignores accepted prison standards and starts shoehorning inmates into existing prisons, as it did in the 1980s, the courts will likely step in and force the state to add prison beds, Barclay said.
“I don’t think anybody who has an institutional memory of those days would want to go back to those days,” he said.
Kansas Sentencing Commission projections show that the state inmate population will steadily increase over the next decade and pass the 10,000 mark for the first time in 2019. Sentencing Commission Director Scott Schultz said the increase is largely the result of Jessica’s Law, which on average adds about 70 inmates a year to the system. Those inmates must serve a minimum of 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.
“They essentially stack onto one another,” Schultz said. “Those folks are going to be on the books for a long time.”
Jessica’s Law carries a sentence of life without parole for 25 years for those convicted of sexually abusing children under the age of 14.
Barclay said that since 2005, the Kansas Legislature has enacted 99 sentencing enhancements, most of which have tended to increase the state prison population. Some of those enhancements carry mandatory minimum sentences.
“At the end of the day, the mandatory minimums play a pretty pivotal role as far as prison beds are concerned,” Schultz said.
Schultz and Barclay said the prison population today would be over capacity were it not for a law enacted by the 2013 Legislature.
That “quick dip” law, which overhauled the state’s probation and parole system, authorizes two- or three-day jail terms for probation violators. Before the law took effect, a judge had two options when dealing with a probation violator: Put the person back on probation or send the violator to prison.
Offenders who continue to violate probation after serving “quick dip” jail terms can be sent to prison for 120 or 180 days. Prison officials have the authority to reduce the 120- and 180-day sentences for inmates who behave in prison.
“That gave us additional tools,” Barclay said of the “quick dip” law. “It’s going to give us an additional year or two of breathing room.”
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says that Kansas has 324 prison inmates per 100,000 residents, the 36th-highest ranking in the nation. Louisiana, with 865 inmates per 100,000 residents, ranks first. Maine, with 147 inmates per 100,000 residents, ranks last.