Government & Politics

Kansas to send hundreds of inmates to private prison in Arizona amid overcrowding

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.

Hundreds of Kansas inmates will soon wake up each day in an Arizona city.

Kansas is turning to prison company CoreCivic to house up to 600 inmates out of state in an attempt to fight prison crowding. The outsourcing will cost millions of dollars a year.

Officials in charge of the state’s prison system – buffeted by years of staff shortages and rising inmate populations – say they don’t have better options.

“Sending Kansas inmates to another state is an option we wish we could avoid,” acting corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda said in a statement. “Entering into this contract to accommodate growth in the prison population is the best option available at this time for the safety of our staff and inmates.”

For $74.76 a day, CoreCivic will transport, house and provide training, treatment, recreational and educational services for Kansas inmates. Housing 600 inmates a year would cost about $16.3 million.

The Kansas Department of Corrections said it will send inmates to the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, in groups of 120. Initially, Kansas plans to house 360 inmates at the facility, but could eventually expand that to 600.

The contract lasts a year and could be renewed for up to three years.

The announcement comes as the state’s prison population hovers around 10,020 — 100 inmates over capacity.

According to the department, state officials will have the right to inspect the Arizona facility at any time.

CoreCivic controversy

CoreCivic runs dozens of facilities and has been sued over allegations of inadequate staffing and poor service. More recently, it has faced criticism for operating detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Monday, the Denver City Council voted against renewing contracts with CoreCivic and another private prison operator, GEO Group, to run halfway houses over the companies’ roles in immigration detention.

The Kansas decision to contract with CoreCivic comes after years of rising inmate populations and staffing shortages combined to create an explosive environment.

Kansas prisons hold 1,500 more people they did a decade ago – nearly 18 percent more. But the number of beds grew only 11 percent.

Uncompetitive pay played a role in staff turnover, which doubled to 41 percent between 2010 and 2018, leaving hundreds of vacancies across the system.

The union that represents corrections officers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said it will never be able to support the “full-scale embrace of for-profit corrections facilities” but added “rampant mismanagement and utter incompetence” created a prison system close to being destroyed.

“The safety and security of the KDOC workers holding the line on the behalf of every single Kansan they serve is of the utmost importance, and we are hopeful that a short-term, closely-monitored usage of these Core Civic-provided beds for the overcrowding of Kansas offenders will help to alleviate a small amount of the dangers our hard-working Kansas Correctional Officers face on a daily basis,” KOSE President Sarah LaFrenz said in a statement.

More pay, hiring

Lawmakers voted this spring to raise starting pay for corrections officers to $18.26 an hour. The bump appears to be having an effect.

On Monday, Gov. Laura Kelly lifted an emergency declaration at El Dorado Correctional Facility that had been in place since June. The declaration had allowed officials to order employees to work longer shifts.

When Kelly declared an emergency, El Dorado prison had 84 vacant officer positions, for a vacancy rate of more than 25 percent. The governor’s office said the number of vacancies stood at 50 as of July 29.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, pointed to the dropping vacancies as evidence the pay increase is working. Between that and the expected completion of a major overhaul at Lansing Correctional Facility, Claeys questioned whether the state will need to send inmates to Arizona for long.

“The pay raises went into effect July 1 and we’re already out of the emergency not five, six weeks later. So I think a three-year plan for outsourcing is probably unnecessary and we can address capacity issues over the next few legislative sessions,” Claeys said.

Muted response

KDOC’s negotiations with CoreCivic had been public since June.

At that time, Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, called moving inmates to a private prison dangerous and risky. “The state’s going to get sued if we proceed down that road,” he said.

On Friday, Denning’s office sounded a different note. His chief of staff, Ethan Patterson, criticized Zmuda’s predecessor, Roger Werholtz, who was interim secretary from January until June.

“Zmuda did inform Denning of this issue a few weeks ago. It’s unfortunate and a little unfair that Secretary Zmuda will have to deal with this in his first month on the job,” Patterson said in a statement. “It would seem that Secretary Werholtz in his time at Corrections didn’t offer any potential solutions to this problem…but rather complained to any audience that would listen.”

Werholtz, who had always said he planned to stay in the job only a short time, attracted attention for his presentations to lawmakers showing prison problems in graphic detail. His talks included photos of riot damage and of injured corrections officers.

Werholtz repeatedly said Kansas needed to consider sentencing reform to reduce the growing prison population or consider expansion.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, initially voiced doubts about Zmuda. On Friday, her office declined to comment on the CoreCivic deal.

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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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