Politics & Government

Secrecy surrounds efforts to rebuild Kansas’ largest prison

tljungblad@kcstar.com

A high level of secrecy surrounds an effort to rebuild Kansas’s oldest and largest prison.

The Kansas Department of Corrections received bids from three companies in the past week to build a new prison at Lansing, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The construction project could ultimately cost Kansas upwards of $200 million. But few details about the bids – including names of bidders and a final cost estimate – have been released publicly.

KDOC will negotiate with the bidders for several weeks before approaching the State Finance Council, made up of lawmakers and the governor, with a proposal for approval. The agency hopes to enter into a contract by the end of the year.

"Most prison projects, we have a bid opening where all the numbers are all read out loud – a public bid opening," said Mike Gaito, the agency’s director of capital improvements. "This is a negotiated procurement so it does not happen."

In a negotiated procurement, the government negotiates with the bidders after they submit bids. The winning bid is not always based on the lowest price.

"We’re very concerned about the lack of transparency the Kansas Department of Corrections is exhibiting with not sharing with the public about who the bidders are and the cost estimate," said Robert Choromanski, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. The union represents corrections officers and other state workers.

Gaito said the process will result in a better project.

"You evaluate it based on what’s best for the state," not purely on cost, Gaito said of the advantage of a negotiated procurement over a typical bid process.

The rebuilding process will affect the state prison system, which has struggled this year with unrest at multiple facilities, most prominently at El Dorado Correctional. Both Lansing and El Dorado continue to face staffing shortages.

Hundreds of inmates will have to be transferred to other prisons, likely including El Dorado, before construction can begin. Gov. Sam Brownback has warned that the system faces "real disruptions."

Parts of the Lansing prison have been in place since the 1860s. The prison now houses 2,146 inmates. The state says the facility is well past its prime.

KDOC would not identify Wednesday the companies that bid on the project, or details of their bids. The Kansas Department of Administration has previously named three companies who expressed interest: Tennessee-based Core Civic, Florida-based GEO Group and Lansing Correctional Partners.

Efforts to find information about Lansing Correctional Partners have been unsuccessful. The entity does not appear to have a website and a search of Kansas business filings turns up no matches.

The financial stakes for both Kansas and the companies pursuing the contract are high.

State auditors have said using bonds for the project could ultimately cost the state $178 million, while a lease-purchase agreement would cost up to $206 million. The agency has not decided which path it wants to use.

Rep. Debbie Deere, D-Lansing, said after the meeting she has constituents who are constantly asking questions and are curious about the project’s progress.

"I know that as far as the staff and such at the facility, they're concerned and they have a lot of questions when they hear about staff cuts and those types of things. They want answers to some questions," she said. "But I think the community as a whole, it's always been supportive of the prison."

Rep. Adam Lusker, D-Frontenac, chairs the committee and didn’t express concerns over transparency. He said KDOC will have to release names when it goes before the State Finance Council for approval.

KDOC says the new Lansing prison will offer advantages over the current building that will cut down on the number of staff needed and save money. The new prison will require fewer officers in order to have visuals on every cell.

A majority of cells in the new prison will be double-bunked, KDOC said. Agency spokesman Samir Arif said it’s a common practice across the country.

The plans for double bunking caught the attention of Sen. John Skubal, R-Overland Park.

"That's something that I would not be in favor of, but again, I don't know that much about the justice system and how that works," Skubal said. "...What I don't want is unrest in those facilities because then you have the potential of what we're seeing and I don't want to see that."

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