Crime & Courts

Corrections secretary: Kansas prisons are running at capacity

The Kansas prison system has reached its capacity, and the state is projected to add 2,100 offenders to the system in the next decade, Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts said Friday.

If the state wants to avoid spending millions of dollars on more prison bed space, Roberts said, it has to continue to look at innovative programs and policies that can cut recidivism rates.

He cited as an example a program that matches inmates with volunteer mentors that has been in operation for two years. He also mentioned a new policy that in future years will require post-release supervision for inmates who have completed the maximum sentence allowed by law. Such inmates, when released today, go unsupervised.

“It’s an ever-evolving, ever-changing business,” he said.

Roberts, who was the featured speaker Friday at the Wichita Pachyderm Club, said the Department of Corrections supervises 6,000 parolees and 9,500 inmates, 80 of whom are living in temporary beds.

Roberts said about 66 percent of inmates are drug abusers and 38 percent are mentally ill.

“Substance abuse and mental illness – those are the two big drivers,” he said. “We’re the largest provider in the state for the mentally ill population.”

He said it was important for inmates to have access to drug programs and mental health treatment.

“There’s a cost associated with it, but there’s a cost of doing nothing, too,” he said. “You can’t just keep ’em in prison and think that will do the trick.”

Roberts said 33.1 percent of Kansas’ newly released inmates are returned to prison within three years. He said that’s well below the national recidivism rate of 43.3 percent.

He said Kansas’ success is partly the result of a mentoring program that to date has trained 2,480 volunteers. The volunteers act as mentors for inmates six months before and six months after they are released.

Roberts said get-tough-on-crime laws have had a lot to do with the rising prison population. He mentioned the 22-year prison sentence given to a man in May for failing to register as a sex offender in Shawnee County.

“If you give someone 22 years for failure to register, you’re going to be paying for them for 22 years,” he said.

When Roberts began his career in corrections in 1975, he said, the average inmate age was 25. Today, he said, it is 37 or 38. More than 800 Kansas prison inmates are older than 55.

About half of Roberts’ presentation involved questions from the audience. A sample:

• Do reality television shows about prison such as “Lockup” offer a realistic view of life in Kansas prisons?

“Yes, kind of, but no,” Roberts said. “They show that there is violence in prison, that there are drugs in prison. But it’s obviously exaggerated for the screen.”

• Are there illegal drugs inside Kansas prisons?

“I’d like to tell you there are no drugs that get smuggled into our system, but that would be false,” Roberts said. “It’s not a large problem, but we do have drugs.”

He said tobacco, which is banned, is among the most frequently smuggled drugs.

• What is a typical day like for convicted BTK strangler Dennis Rader and multiple murderers Reginald and Jonathan Carr?

“They get five hours of exercise and three showers a week,” Roberts said. “We feed them in their cells.”

He said Rader and the Carr brothers are among the 394 inmates in administrative segregation at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. Whenever they move anywhere outside their cells, Roberts said, they do so with their hands cuffed behind their backs.

• If I have my Internet and TV, and can live on $20,000 a year, why does it cost $24,000 for an inmate?

“It’s no-frills, but you have to provide the basics,” Roberts said.

He said it costs the state only $1.38 per meal to feed the inmates. But the state is paying $48million this year for prisoner health care. Security, mainly in the form of manpower, is a major cost in running a prison system, he said.

• What would happen if the state just released all drug offenders and mentally ill inmates and offered them treatment in community-based settings?

“Some of those drug offenders, if you look at their record, you wouldn’t want them released,” Roberts said. “Some of our mentally ill offenders have committed some tough crimes.”