Kansas to explore building new state prison, official says

The Lansing state prison has space for 2,405 male prisoners and had 2,366 as of Wednesday.
The Lansing state prison has space for 2,405 male prisoners and had 2,366 as of Wednesday. Eagle file photo

Kansas corrections officials said Thursday that they are considering replacing the state’s largest prison with a modern facility that would be safer and cheaper to maintain.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said in a statement that the state will solicit proposals from private companies to build the new prison in Lansing. His announcement did not say how the state would finance the project, only that the Department of Corrections expects it to be “budget neutral” because the state would see efficiencies from operating a modern prison.

But a legislator who said he was briefed on the proposal a few weeks ago said the company building the new prison would lease it back to the state. State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, whose district includes the prison, said the project also could increase the state’s prison capacity, improve staffing and boost pay for some workers.

Norwood’s announcement surprised many lawmakers, who are starting to tackle projected budget shortfalls totaling nearly $1.1 billion through June 2019.

The state’s adult inmate population has slightly exceeded the prison system’s capacity for at least a year; the Lansing prison has space for 2,405 male prisoners and had 2,366 as of Wednesday.

Department spokesman Todd Fertig said a request for construction proposals will be issued within the next month. The agency expects the project to take three years.

“We’re exploring a variety of options to construct a new facility,” Fertig said. “We expect the project to be budget neutral as we create a more efficient design.”

Kansas used bonds to finance the construction of its newest maximum-security prison outside El Dorado, which opened in 1991.

Fertig said the oldest part of the Lansing prison, dating to the 1860s, will be mothballed but preserved, while other parts of the prison will be razed. He said plans are to keep all of the inmates within the state prison system while the project is ongoing.

Fitzgerald endorsed the idea, saying it will allow the state to control costs and make better use of its existing corrections dollars. He said inmates and prison employees “deserve a better facility.”

The oldest part of the facility still has long rows of cells in tiers – rather than square pods of cells in modern prisons – so that all of the cells are harder to see and monitor at once.

Repairs have become more costly, Fertig said, and building a new facility will allow the state to upgrade its security systems as well.

“My understanding is that while we’re going to gain efficiencies from this, nobody is going to be fired or lose their job,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve got that taken care of, and, in fact, there’s going to be some new jobs as part of the lease that are going to be better paid.”

But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chairwoman of the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the project is not “on the top of my plate” as her committee wrestles with the state’s budget problems. McGinn said Norwood informed her of the plan on Wednesday.

“I think I need to see the details,” McGinn said.