TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are debating how much the decision to house more inmates two-to-a-cell has fueled unrest at state prisons in recent months, and some worry about Department of Corrections plans to open a new prison with a majority of its cells double-bunked.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told a legislative committee this week that the cells at the planned new prison in Lansing in the Kansas City area would be large enough to hold two inmates, including maximum-security prisoners. He said the state would meet American Correctional Association accreditation guidelines and that double-bunking is common across the nation.
The department does not believe greater double-bunking was a factor in multiple disturbances earlier this year at the state’s maximum-security prison in El Dorado, east of Wichita, or a riot early this month at a low-security prison in Norton in northwestern Kansas. But lawmakers in both parties have noted the problems came after populations rose in those two prisons, with more inmates housed two-to-a-cell.
“It potentially puts our guards in danger,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Caroline McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, who expects to raise the issue during another committee meeting Thursday. “I don’t think it’s a good idea at all.”
The debate over double-bunking and plans for a new prison come with the corrections system under stress because of a rising inmate population, low pay for corrections officers and staffing shortages acute enough to force Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to order an immediate pay increase for officers in August. In a riot in September, prisoners at Norton set small fires and smashed windows after as many as 250 of them spilled into the yard.
Norwood told legislators that double-bunking allows the state to expand its housing for inmates at a relatively low cost, both in terms of construction and staffing. The state this year shut down cell houses in El Dorado and its oldest and largest prison in Lansing because of staffing issues — even with space for prisoners at a premium.
The department wants to build a new prison in Lansing because parts of the existing one date to the 1860s and corrections officials and lawmakers agree the aging facility is not as efficient or safe as a modern prison. The department has estimated that it could run a new prison with 43 percent fewer workers, generating savings to pay for the new facility over time.
Norwood said a modern prison — with central security stations and cells arranged around central day rooms — requires fewer employees to monitor inmates and makes video surveillance more effective.
Construction of the new Lansing prison could cost $155 million. Corrections officials won’t disclose the names of the three bidders on the project, but the Department of Administration gave AP the list in July and confirmed that all three had submitted proposals earlier this month.
They are CoreCivic, of Nashville; another company that runs private prisons, GEO Group, of Boca Raton, Florida, and Lansing Correctional Partners, of Memphis, Tennessee. The department hopes private negotiations result in a final contract with one of them by November. The new facility would have about 2,400 beds, while the existing prison is housing about 2,100 inmates.
As of Thursday, the state housed about 2,300 inmates two-to-a-cell in six prisons, or 26 percent of the total population, including more than 800 at the El Dorado prison, some of them maximum-security. But the state isn’t double-bunking maximum-security inmates at its prison in Lansing or another maximum-security facility in Hutchinson because the cells are too small.
“So long as cells meet the space requirements, double-bunking inmates is the best option for inmates, for staff and for taxpayers,” department spokesman Samir Arif said.
The ACA sets hundreds of standards for prisons to achieve accreditation but says generally that each inmate in a multi-person cell must have at least 25 square feet of space unencumbered by furniture or other fixtures, more if a cell is occupied more than 10 hours a day. Its guidelines also favor one-person cells for maximum-security inmates.
In the mid-1980s, Kansas was double-bunking inmates at its Hutchinson prison in 5-foot by 8-foot cells until a federal judge ordered a stop to the practice.
“The new facility will be built with a cell size to accommodate two beds,” Norwood told legislators.
But Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican serving on a committee that reviews state building projects, said even if the cells are deemed large enough, he worries double-bunking creates “more opportunities to have people fighting with one another.”
“I’m concerned about any insurrections that we have,” Skubal said. “I don’t want to put any of our employees at risk.”