Kansas House rejects prison inmate policy change

– House members rejected an amendment Tuesday that would have restricted the types of inmates the Kansas Department of Corrections could house in county jails.

The proposal was in response to the escape in April of four state prison inmates who were being held in the Ottawa County jail. The men were in the county jail as part of a contract to alleviate state prison overcrowding. The House rejected the amendment 79-41.

Rep. Sean Gatewood offered the amendment, saying legislators needed to have the debate over public safety. He said the escaped inmates had violent criminal histories and immediately carjacked a vehicle when they fled from the north-central Kansas jail.

“How is that safe? I think the citizens of Kansas deserve better,” said Gatewood, a Topeka Democrat.

House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairwoman Pat Colloton said the amendment restricts the ability to manage the prison population.

For example, she said, it would prevent the corrections department from transferring inmates who completed their sentences to county jails for work-release programs as part of their transition back to society. Such transfers can alleviate prison crowding and are viewed as lower risk.

The amendment was offered to a bill that would allow for the sale of Department of Corrections property in Reno County for construction of a new county jail. Rep. Doug Gatewood, a Columbus Democrat, said legislators were told during a hearing on the bill that the county intended to house state inmates in the new jail and that it would be built to a higher security standard.

“I think this is a debate that we need to have,” he said. “That policy needs to be looked at very, very carefully given the recent jailbreaks that we have had.”

At the time of the escape, the Department of Corrections was housing nearly 90 prison inmates in approved county jails. The agency has said that it is reviewing the policy and how it certifies whether jails are acceptable for state inmates in light of the April escape.

Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said as of Tuesday, the total male inmate population was 8,627 prisoners, 185 over capacity. He 71 inmates were placed in contracts with county jails.

The amendment would have prevented convicted rapists and murderers from being housed in county jails. One of the men who escaped was convicted of two murders in Sedgwick County. All four inmates were recaptured within three days.

Santos Carrera-Morales, 22, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of a teenager and a young man in Sedgwick County in March 2007.

A second inmate, 21-year-old Drew Wade, had been serving time for robbery and aggravated battery. A third man, Eric James, 22, was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping and criminal damage to property for crimes in three southeast Kansas counties over 10 days in February 2008.

Alberto Barraza-Lujan, 23, was the first inmate to be recaptured, shortly after the escape. He was serving time for attempted aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer in 2011.

Colloton said legislators should not confuse an inmate’s custody level with the severity level of the crime they committed. She said the crime, such as murder or rape, may have something to do with being classified as a medium-security inmate or maximum security, but those classifications can serve as an incentive for good behavior once behind bars.

“It might have something to do with it at the beginning. I think this is premature,” said Colloton, a Leawood Republican.

Colloton said the topic is expected to be discussed during the summer and fall interim session before the 2013 session.