Politics & Government

Kansas may send inmates to private prison in Arizona run by controversial company

Kansas officials are negotiating to send potentially hundreds of inmates to a prison in Arizona owned by a company with a checkered history as one of the largest operators of private prisons in America.

CoreCivic, which runs dozens of facilities, has been hit with lawsuits accusing it of inadequate staffing and poor service. The company faces a class-action lawsuit from shareholders alleging it made false statements about its security operations.

Sending inmates to a CoreCivic facility would plunge Kansas into the national debate over private prisons.

“It’s dangerous, it’s risky and the state’s going to get sued if we proceed down that road,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, who disclosed the state’s talks with CoreCivic on Wednesday during a meeting of the State Finance Council.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said sending inmates to private prisons isn’t ideal but is the only option right now.

“It’s certainly not a practice we would go into voluntarily,” she said. “I just don’t think we have much of a choice at this point but to contract with those private prisons to alleviate the overcrowding and the stress on our staff.”

The council approved $4.3 million so the Department of Corrections can send inmates to private prisons or county jails. That’s expected to house about 360 inmates for a year. But it’s short of the 600 beds the agency wanted to fund.

CoreCivic confirmed it responded to the state’s request for proposals to house inmates, but wouldn’t say more.

“Out of respect for their procurement process, we defer questions to Kansas officials,” CoreCivic spokesman Brandon Bissell said in an email.

On its website, CoreCivic says it provides high-quality corrections and detention management. Its employees are driven by a “deep sense of service, high standards of professionalism and a responsibility to better the public good,” the site says.

Unease over private prisons has grown in recent years, even as governments continue to use them. Under President Barack Obama, the federal government began phasing out its use of private prisons. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice inspector general report found more safety and security incidents took place in private prisons than in comparable federal prisons.

President Donald Trump’s administration rescinded the directive soon after he took office.

But conditions are bleak inside Kansas prisons.

More than 330 corrections officer positions were vacant on May 13, with 77 open at El Dorado Correctional Facility. That prison has been on emergency status since February, forcing employees to work mandatory overtime.

Across the prison system, the amount of overtime paid out has risen from $2.9 million in 2015 to $8.5 million last year. The state is projected to spend more than $11 million on overtime pay this year.

The finance council on Wednesday approved $9.1 million in pay raises for corrections employees who often work directly with inmates. Officials hope the raises will attract more workers and eventually reduce staff vacancies.

But the council rejected a request for $3 million to house adult female inmates at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. The move would have helped ease pressure at the state’s only prison for females, which is housing several dozen inmates above its capacity.

Corrections officials were frustrated the council hadn’t approved more funding. The money comes with strings attached. In order to spend it, the department must keep the El Dorado prison running at capacity. The agency had wanted to close a cell house to take pressure off of staff.

The state budget includes more than $30 million in additional prison funding. But it required the council to sign off on about $28 million. On Wednesday, the council approved about $17 million.

“It doesn’t go far enough. We still have issues of staff and prisoner safety. We still have overcrowding issues and there is no plan in any of these actions that deals with the anticipated growth in the prison population,” departing corrections secretary Roger Werholtz said.

Projections show the prison population jumping from about 10,000 today to more than 12,000 in less than 10 years.

Werholtz left the agency on May 31. He had always said he saw the job as temporary.

Kelly plans to replace him with Jeff Zmuda, a top corrections official in Idaho.

An Idaho judge in March found that Zmuda had provided “disingenuous” testimony in a lawsuit over access to Idaho’s execution records. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, questioned whether the Senate will confirm him.

“We don’t have a proposed secretary that’s bought into this plan,” Wagle said of the spending the administration wants to improve prisons.

Kelly said Zmuda was thoroughly vetted and that her administration had discussed the issue with him at length.

“He readily admits that was not handled very well and he also understands completely my commitment, my administration’s commitment, to transparency and he will act accordingly,” Kelly said.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.