TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas was “hoodwinked” into hiring a private company to build a new prison based on a promise that the new lockup would require significantly less staff and the savings could be used to pay for the project, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday.
Kelly’s comment during an Associated Press interview comes as her corrections secretary questions whether the staff savings will materialize because of what he sees as a less-than-ideal prison design. The new prison is under construction in Lansing, in the Kansas City area, and due to open early next year.
Former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback pushed the project as a way to replace the deteriorating prison in Lansing with no additional net cost to the state. Legislative leaders gave the final go-ahead for the project in January 2018, after Brownback’s administration assured lawmakers that the new prison could run safety with 46 percent fewer employees.
Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz, a Kelly appointee, is now telling legislators that the projections may have been too optimistic.
“I doubted at the time that they could really safely reduce staff at the numbers that they were talking about, so this comes as no surprise to me,” Kelly said Friday.
Kansas is buying the new, 2,432-bed prison over 20 years through a lease with its contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic Inc., the nation’s largest private prison company. The total cost is about $360 million, but Brownback’s administration calculated that savings in staffing costs would cover lease payments.
“CoreCivic is on-track to deliver to the state of Kansas a desperately needed replacement for a Civil War-era prison facility that is currently unsafe for staff and inmates alike,” company spokesman Steve Owen said.
Kelly, a veteran state senator before being elected governor last year, had been publicly skeptical of the project.
“We were just, you know, hoodwinked, I think,” Kelly said. “I was not.”
Parts of the existing Lansing prison date to the 1860s and feature long rows of tiered cells with bad sight lines, but even newer parts built in the 1980s were poorly designed, corrections officials said.
Plans for the new prison call for two large cell houses that modernize that traditional design. But cells still will be arranged in rows, rather than in a series of square or triangular pods around a central officers’ station to give employees a view of every cell.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said the project was “thoroughly vetted.” The Department of Corrections received the final go-ahead for the project 11 months after then-Secretary Joe Norwood announced he was pursuing it, and the Republican-controlled Legislature required several rounds of review.
“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 said. “It needs to be reviewed, but the idea and the concept seem pretty solid.”
Owen, the company spokesman, said the design has been developed “in close consultation” with the department to “provide a state-of-the-art facility with enhanced safety and security as well as programming space.”
Werholtz, who served as corrections secretary from 2002 through 2010, returned the job last month when Kelly took office. About two weeks later, he called the new prison’s design “certainly not optimal” and told one legislative committee, “I’m not thrilled.”
He also said during an Associated Press interview this week that the new prison will be a significant improvement over the existing one.
Owen said the modern prison allows more efficient staffing “while greatly improving the quality of life” for inmates and staff.
And Werholtz and the department’s capital improvements director, Mike Gaito, also said the design probably was the best option for the Lansing site.
They said level space at the site is too small for a pod design because the state can’t tear down the existing prison. They said picking a new site — in Lansing or another community — likely would add tens of millions of dollars to the cost.
Werholtz acknowledged that the department won’t know for sure how many employees will be needed to run the prison safety until construction is further along later this year. Brownback’s administration projected that staffing with the new prison could drop to 371 employees from 682.
“It probably is more efficient than the existing one, but I think our question is, is it as efficient as has been promised, since it’s going to be paid for by staff savings?” Werholtz said. “I think they may have been a little aggressive in the savings that were projected.”