Kansas plans to have the biggest private prison company in the U.S. build a replacement for the state’s oldest and largest correctional facility and pay for the project by leasing the new prison from the firm for 20 years.
The state Department of Corrections announced Thursday that it selected CoreCivic Inc., based in Nashville, Tennessee, as its contractor for the new prison for 2,400 inmates in Lansing, in the Kansas City area. Parts of the existing prison date to the 1860s, and corrections officials contend a modern facility would be safer while operating with 46 percent fewer employees.
CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, owns, controls or manages more than 80 facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia. It has been the subject of lawsuits and critical audits in six states, including Kansas. The firm would only oversee construction, hiring local subcontractors, and handle repairs and upkeep, Kansas officials said.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration contends a lease-purchase deal is the most cost-effective way to build a new prison, even after a state audit in July questioned that assessment. Two legislative committees still must review the plan, and legislative leaders and Brownback must formally sign off next month for the two-year, $170 million project to move forward.
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“Modern prison designs are safer and more efficient,” the department said in a presentation Wednesday for one of the legislative committees, adding that abandoning old-style tiers of cells in long rows will give officers “better views of inmate movements.”
Two other companies expressed an interest in the project, though only one of them, GEO Group of Boca Raton, Florida, submitted a bid.
CoreCivic’s bid was significantly lower: An annual payment starting at $15 million and totaling $294 million over 20 years, with no extra payment when the lease ends. Neither CoreCivic nor GEO Group expressed interest in the project if the state financed it with its own bonds, but the debt limit was set at $155 million, and the department said projected costs rose.
CoreCivic described itself in its last annual report as a “flexible and dependable partner” for local, state and federal governments. Its facilities have roughly 90,000 beds – almost nine times the size of Kansas’ prison system – and it reported revenue of $1.85 billion for 2016.
“Our employees are driven by a deep sense of service, high standards of professionalism and a responsibility to help government better the public good,” it said.
Staffing would be lower at the new prison – 371 employees instead of the current 682 positions – but 133 of those existing jobs, or nearly 20 percent, are vacant. Brownback ordered pay raises for corrections officers earlier this year because of staffing problems at state prisons.
Democratic legislators have expressed misgivings about a lease-purchase agreement with a private prison company, arguing it was a step toward privatizing the state’s prison system.
CoreCivic has faced a range of allegations about its private prisons and jails in federal lawsuits in Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.
In Kansas lawsuits, it is being sued over the taping of attorney-inmate meetings but denies wrongdoing.
A state audit earlier this month in Tennessee said CoreCivic lockups there were understaffed and some staffing information was riddled with errors or hadn’t been shared with the state. The U.S. Department of Justice issued critical reports on CoreCivic-run federal facilities in Leavenworth, Kansas, in April, and in Natchez, Mississippi, in December 2016.