Politics & Government

Kansas prisons face ‘real disruptions’ in the near future, Brownback says

Gov. Sam Brownback talks about disruption in state prisons. (Sept. 11, 2017)
Gov. Sam Brownback talks about disruption in state prisons. (Sept. 11, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback said Kansas prisons face "real disruptions" in the short term as inmates are moved throughout the system in anticipation of the rebuilding of the state’s oldest and largest prison.

Brownback’s comments suggest the turbulence that has rattled the state’s prison system this year will continue.

Inmates rebelled at Norton Correctional Facility last week, setting fires and overturning a vehicle. One hundred inmates were moved out of the prison afterward. And over the summer, El Dorado Correctional Facility experienced multiple episodes of unrest.

The construction of a new prison at Lansing, where some parts date to the 1860s, as well as the pay raises given to corrections officers last month, should help the prison system get into a "better situation" in the long-term, Brownback told reporters.

But building a new prison will require moving inmates out of the current facility. "Near-term, you’ve got some real disruptions in the system," Brownback said.

"When you move people around, it’s disruptive in the system. You’re introducing new people into a prison system. A number of these are maximum security individuals – so there’s a lot of moving parts there," Brownback said.

Since July 1, the Lansing prison has had an average daily population of 2,091. That’s down from an average of 2,328 during the preceding year.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has been pushing for a new prison at Lansing over the past year. Lawmakers are generally supportive of the effort but the Legislature must review construction and financing plans before the agency proceeds.

The agency wants to enter into a contract for the new prison sometime this fall.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood has said previously that the movement of inmates out of Lansing this spring wasn’t directly related to the new prison project but was instead done to reduce pressure on staff. Lansing and El Dorado are both experiencing a high number of staff vacancies.

The agency has also said the riot at Norton last week wasn’t the result of inmate transfers. Norwood told the Associated Press that protests outside the prison are helping fuel uprisings.

"We see, even in the communities, there’s more of a propensity for citizens to object to things more in a group-style setting and air grievances through protesting," Norwood said. "I think we’re seeing some of that bleed over into the inmate population."

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Norwood’s comments showed "the department is not taking any responsibility for the problems at hand."

Inmates are attempting to garner media attention, said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

"Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands. They watch the TV news and they read the newspapers and they are incentivized right now to act out because it’s happened in one facility, it could happen in another," Wagle said.

"It’s kind of a going trend right now. They’re getting a lot of attention for acting in a very bad way and it’s kind of like junior high."

Brownback said the Norton uprising was unusual because the prison houses low and medium-security inmates, as opposed to maximum-security inmates like El Dorado and Lansing.

"That one was not a typical one taking place or a more likely one you would see taking place," Brownback said.

Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star and the Associated Press

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Related stories from Wichita Eagle