The embattled Kansas Department of Corrections said Thursday that it would like to have one of the largest private prison operators in the country design and build a new Lansing prison in a lease-purchase arrangement.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood presented a panel of lawmakers with a plan for CoreCivic Inc., formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, to take the lead in replacing the state’s largest prison.
Under the 20-year agreement, the state would own the prison after the lease ends. Over that time the new prison would cost Kansas roughly $362 million.
“We recognize that we really need a new facility at the Lansing location,” Norwood told lawmakers. “But we also need to be able to do it within our existing budget resources.”
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The Corrections Department said CoreCivic would design, build, finance and maintain the prison but that state would staff and operate it.
Two former aides to Gov. Sam Brownback are lobbying on behalf of CoreCivic, according to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. David Kensinger was formerly Brownback’s chief of staff and George Stafford served as deputy chief of staff.
“Organizations retain and change lobbyists on a regular basis,” a statement from Brownback’s office said late Thursday. “The governor’s office was not involved in the selection of the winning bidder.”
The project needs approval from the state finance council, which includes the governor and legislative leaders.
Critics were quick to slam the plan, and the proposal was met with bipartisan reluctance by the Joint Committee on State Building Construction.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said she wanted to see the project taken off the table.
“This is just insane,” Kelly said. “I don’t only want to stop the lease-purchase. I want to stop the entire thing because we don’t have a plan.”
Other lawmakers, including Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee and serves on the state finance council, also were critical.
A new facility is absolutely needed, McGinn said, and the current prison isn’t safe for prisoners or security guards.
“The problem here — we’re in this decision mode now — is because so much of this process was done behind closed doors,” she said. “It wasn’t an open process.”
Prison officials have consistently noted the rough conditions at the Lansing facility, whose inmate population is more than 2,100 as of Wednesday.
Thursday’s presentation to lawmakers described Lansing as having “old, unserviceable infrastructure.” It also described deteriorating working conditions for staff and and poor living conditions.
The proposal calls for a 1,920-bed maximum- and medium-security unit and a 512-bed minimum-security unit that would be built over two years.
The new prison would be more efficient, the department said, with a staff of 371, down from 682 positions for the current prison.
“The modern design provides officers with better views of inmate movements and activities as well,” Norwood said.
“The solution we’re bringing to the table is a complete risk transfer,” CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger said after the announcement. “As we build this facility, we are on the hook for any costs overruns.”
But some lawmakers remained critical of the lease-purchase option.
“I think the idea that we just simply commit taxpayer dollars without ever even looking at the possibility, and it happens in other states, of having economic development dollars put towards the creation of jobs, such as this prison creating 350, I think the idea that just simply don’t even look at that is ridiculous,” said Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who is often vocal about the state’s prison system.
An audit released in July noted that the Corrections Department had overestimated cost savings under a lease-purchase agreement to rebuild Lansing and that it would be more cost-effective for the state to borrow money by issuing bonds instead. Bonds are frequently used by all levels of government to finance construction.
Norwood said the department is authorized to issue up to $155 million in bonds, but he said the Lansing project’s potential cost now exceeds that limit. He said the estimate was a year-old, costs have risen and natural disasters have caused a shortage of labor and materials.
The state’s prison system has faced concerns and criticism from lawmakers amid unrest and violence in facilities this year. Kansas also has struggled with staff vacancies at the state’s prisons, including at Lansing.
CoreCivic operates the Leavenworth Detention Center under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. The company is being sued over the taping of attorney-inmate meetings there, and has faced lawsuits in federal courts in Idaho, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, the Associated Press reported.
Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, said after Thursday morning’s presentation that he supports the lease-purchase arrangement.
“I think it’s a good option for controlling the cost to the state, providing for the safety of the officers down in Lansing,” he said.
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman and The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this report.