Politics & Government

How Kansas prisons became an ‘absolute mess’ that will cost taxpayers millions to fix

How Kansas prisons came to a crisis point

The Kansas prison system is over capacity and understaffed.
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The Kansas prison system is over capacity and understaffed.

Lansing Correctional Facility — Kansas’ oldest prison — was crumbling. So in 2018, lawmakers approved a $360 million overhaul to turn the place into a high-tech marvel.

The project adds just 27 new beds.

Elsewhere in the state, officials double-bunked cells to squeeze in a growing number of inmates.

Kansas prisons are in crisis after decisions by state leaders have left them overcrowded and suffering from dangerous staff shortages.

The number of inmates in Kansas prisons grew 15 percent over the past decade, even as the number nationwide dropped.

As inmates kept coming, burned-out corrections officers went years without raises. Inmate transfers and tight quarters led to riots.

“We are in an absolute mess right now,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who sits on House committees on corrections and the judiciary.

Taxpayers are paying the costs. Overtime for corrections officers has soared to an estimated $11.2 million this year, up from $2.9 million five years ago. Millions more could be spent to house hundreds of inmates in private prisons.

And the state may be thrust into a painful debate over expanding its prisons while the United States as a whole is locking up fewer people.

Lawmakers were warned repeatedly of the deteriorating situation. But interviews with past and present officials show how state leaders not only failed to halt inmate population growth, but also left the prison system ill-equipped to handle the rising numbers.

“I will readily admit, and I will accept as much responsibility as anyone for this: While we knew the problem was urgent, we may not have fully appreciated how urgent it was,” said former state senator Jeff King, a Republican who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’

Kansas was in the middle of then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment when a union for state employees told lawmakers in 2014 that staffing shortages had placed prisons at risk.

The next year, Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, appointed under Republican Brownback, warned the Legislature that staff turnover was approaching 30 percent a year.

At $13.61 an hour, the starting rate for entry-level officers wasn’t competitive. Officers could earn more at county jails or federal prisons.

But as tax collections routinely fell below estimates, Kansas careened from budget crisis to budget crisis. Prison workers went years without across-the-board raises.

Low pay is a big cause of the prison problems, said John Rubin, a former Republican state representative who at one point chaired the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

“I said the Kansas prison system was a disaster waiting to happen for a variety of reasons,” said Rubin, who now lives in Georgia.

Between 2010 and 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to 41 percent.

As experienced officers left over poor pay, fewer people came forward to take their places. Prisons are now short-staffed by about 330 officers.

“They’re bringing in people far too young and inexperienced with life skills. They were not paying anything to these people who put their lives on the floor,” said J. Ruth Beck, who worked at Ellsworth Correctional Facility until 2016 and was active in the union.

Not until riots rocked prisons in 2017 did Brownback announce emergency pay increases. The Legislature has followed with multiple pay raises, and the starting wage now sits at $18.26 an hour.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and prison officials say it will take time to attract new workers.

“We have an emergency in Kansas because of prior years of bad decision-making that crippled our corrections operations,” she said.

Double-bunking, riots

Kansas prisons hold 1,500 more people they did a decade ago – nearly 18 percent more. But overall beds have grown only 11 percent.

Much of that growth is due to the decision to double-bunk inmates, a move that allows prisons to house with more people without expanding.

Kansas-prison-population-chart.jpg

Still, with a population of more than 10,000 inmates, the prisons are now about 100 inmates over capacity. The number fluctuates daily.

As the number of inmates grew, Kansas didn’t build a new prison, but instead chose to rebuild an old one.

The Brownback administration began pursuing an overhaul of Lansing Correctional Facility in 2017. It’s now under construction, but the new design has little in the way of housing for additional inmates.

Its construction has actually resulted in a temporary loss of about 500 beds.

To boost capacity in the years before the project, the agency began housing two inmates where before there had been just one. It double-bunked cells throughout the state, adding about 800 beds.

Double-bunking didn’t just affect cell houses. It crammed more people into the same amount of yard, recreation and dining space.

The decision helped set the stage for riots in 2017 and 2018. Inmates ransacked offices, overturned a vehicle and burned a building at El Dorado Correctional Facility.

“So everything gets stressed,” Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said in an interview earlier this year.

Werholtz, appointed by Kelly as an interim secretary in January, held graphic briefings that showed lawmakers the extent of the riots for the first time.

He also questioned promises from the Brownback administration that the newly rebuilt Lansing prison would be able to operate with 40 percent fewer staff.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, has said the Lansing project was thoroughly vetted.

“We know we need more prison space and we need to find a better way to do this for the long-term and this project was one that fit that mold,” Ryckman told the Associated Press in February. “It needs to be reviewed, but the idea and the concept seem pretty solid.”

Some lawmakers said they didn’t have full picture about the state of the prisons under the Brownback administration. They suggest the Legislature might have acted sooner if it had known the severity of the problems.

“We just hadn’t seen that,” Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said of Werholtz’s briefings.

“Frankly, I don’t believe we were told the truth of what was going on in corrections under the Brownback administration, and you can only deal with the facts that you’re given,” Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat, said.

Joe Norwood, secretary of corrections at the time of the riots, didn’t respond to a message left for him at a home number. Phone numbers listed for previous secretary Roberts were inoperable.

Fears of being soft on crime

Even though Kansas prisons are under stress, the state hasn’t slowed the flow of new inmates.

Last year, 153 more people were admitted to prison than released. The prison population is forecast to rise to more than 12,000 by 2028.

“Despite any language or statements to the contrary, the clear overarching criminal justice policy of the state is to lock up more and more people for longer and longer periods of time,” the Department of Corrections said in a memo to legislative leaders this month.

Some say that’s because lawmakers fear being called soft on crime.

“It looks good on campaign literature to say I increased the penalty for aggravated rape or whatever offense it is,” Carmichael said. “There’s a perception among some politicians that the key to reelection is getting tough on crime and that mentality goes a long way toward creating the problems that we face today.”

In response to the memo and other questions, Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office issued a one-sentence statement: “In the attorney general’s view, life sentences are appropriate public policy for violent criminals who commit premeditated murder or sexual assault of a child to ensure they can never harm another innocent victim.”

Lawmakers raised the mandatory time for premeditated first-degree murder to 50 years from 25 years in 2014, but gave judges the option of setting a lower sentence. They also required sentences of at least 25 years without parole for attempted capital murder and felony murder.

Over the years, lawmakers have added crimes and increased penalties for others. But they’ve also tried to reduce recidivism and cut down the number of non-violent offenders in prison.

One initiative tried to cut the number of non-violent offenders returning to prison for violations as simple as not checking in with a parole officer on time. Another expanded the amount of credit some inmates could earn toward early release for good behavior in prison.

Lawmakers also reformed the juvenile justice system, hoping the changes will eventually lead to fewer adult offenders.

Still, none of those steps managed to lessen crowding in prisons.

King, the former senator, said the problem would be even worse today without those actions.

“I have no doubt about that,” King said. “Does it need to be better? Absolutely.”

No easy solutions

The prison crisis may force more aggressive action.

The Legislature has created a commission to study criminal justice reform. It must report back by the end of the year.

Evaluating criminal sentences will be a “big piece” of what lawmakers do over the next couple years, Patton said. Groups across the political spectrum want the Legislature to address that, he added.

The short-term outlook for Kansas prisons remains grim, regardless of what lawmakers do. There is no quick solution.

A Department of Corrections memo to legislative leaders this month outlined several possible plans, but all would take months or years to have an effect.

Changing the guidelines used to sentence offenders and expanding the credit inmates can earn toward early release for good behavior would both take legislative action. Barring a special session, lawmakers aren’t set to return to Topeka until January.

Building a new prison that would house 1,200 inmates would cost between $135 million and $145 million, but wouldn’t be operational for three or four years.

“Building more prison space should be a last resort,” Rubin said. “Now, it might be something they’ll have to resort to, but all these other measures should be explored.”

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.

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