Government & Politics

After year of prison turmoil, vote expected on building new Lansing prison

The Lansing Correctional Facility is the state’s oldest and largest prison.
The Lansing Correctional Facility is the state’s oldest and largest prison.

Despite calls for more review and questions about the cost to taxpayers, top Kansas officials are expected to consider Thursday a lease-to-own arrangement with a private prison operator to design and build a new Lansing prison.

Critics say the process has been rushed and the financing method is questionable for replacing the state’s largest prison.

The State Finance Council, which includes Gov. Sam Brownback as well as Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate, will likely take up the plan. A spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections said this is the last major hurdle to clear for the project to start.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican on the finance council, said he planned to vote for the project. He said the Lansing prison “desperately needs to be updated.”

“We’ve got to do something,” said Waymaster, who leads the House budget committee. “We can’t hold off on this anymore.”

Under the 20-year agreement, the state would own the prison after the lease ends. Over that time the new prison would cost Kansas taxpayers roughly $362 million.

A July audit found the Corrections Department had overestimated cost savings of a lease-purchase agreement and said it would be more cost-effective for the state to borrow money by issuing bonds. Bonds are frequently used by all levels of government to finance construction.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told The Star last month that construction costs would continue to go up with any significant delay in the project.

But Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor and a critic of the project, said there are too many unknowns, too many questions, about whether this is the right plan at the right time.

“If they want to just flat out kill it, I’d be good with that,” Kelly said of the State Finance Council. “And then we can bring the discussion up at a more appropriate time.”

The Kansas prison system faced public scrutiny last year amid unrest among inmates, including violence. The system has also struggled to retain corrections workers. The Corrections Department earlier reported that the uniformed staff turnover rate at Lansing in fiscal 2017 topped 37 percent.

Gaylene Armstrong, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said a new facility may not be the cure to the staff turnover issues at prisons like Lansing.

“Building a new facility or having a brand-new private facility isn’t going to be the necessary solution to retaining staff in the long run,” Armstrong said. “It’s a challenging environment.”

Kansas corrections officers’ pay has been a frequent concern. After calls for action by some lawmakers, Brownback announced in August that corrections officers at the state prison in El Dorado would receive a 10 percent pay raise, while officers at other prisons would get a 5 percent bump.

Corrections workers pay is expected to be a topic of discussion for lawmakers during the 2018 session.

Officials have said that CoreCivic Inc., formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, would design, build, finance and maintain the prison but that state would staff and operate it.

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 corrections department says, with a staff of 371, down from 682 positions needed in the current prison.

“A modern designed facility requires less staff to operate,” Corrections spokesman Samir Arif said.

In late November, The Star revealed that Brownback’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, and another former Brownback staffer were registered as lobbying on behalf of CoreCivic. Brownback’s office said at the time that it was not involved in the selection of the winning bidder.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said he hoped the finance council votes against moving the project forward, calling the sense of urgency “fully manufactured.”

If the state is going to build a new Lansing prison, he would rather see the state pursue the bond-and-build option instead.

“It’s a terrible idea, but here we go,” Claeys said of the lease-purchase plan.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw