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Plan would cut Kan. prison's staffing more than 40 percent

Kansas would cut staffing by more than 40 percent at its largest prison by leasing a modern lockup


By John Hanna
AP Political Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas would cut staffing at its largest prison by more than 40 percent under a plan for replacing it by leasing a modern lockup built by a private company, the state's top corrections official told legislators Wednesday.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said the new prison in Lansing, built where part of the existing one now stands, would require fewer officers to watch inmates, would be safer and would operate more efficiently. The Department of Corrections would preserve but mothball historic parts of the prison dating to the 1860s and raze other parts built later.

Norwood told a Kansas House budget subcommittee that the prison's current staff of 686 employees could drop to 392 under a lease-purchase arrangement. The department estimates that annual staffing costs would decrease to $20.5 million from $34.5 million — a savings of $14 million that could cover lease payments.

The department expects to solicit proposals from private companies within weeks. Norwood said a lease-purchase agreement is one option to build a new prison, but his presentation contained data suggesting such a deal would be less costly, both for construction and long-term costs.

"This is not a question of if we should do this project. I think it's a question of how we should do this project," Norwood told the committee.

Construction could cost as much as $155 million, though Norwood said a private company might be able to build the new prison for as little as $130 million.

On Wednesday, several prominent Democratic legislators questioned whether Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is moving too quickly. They also suggested that the lease-purchase proposal would be a step toward privatizing the prison system.

Norwood said the prison would remain a state prison staffed by state workers. But House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said: "There's nobody who believes that a company that invests $150 million over a 20- or 30-year period of time isn't going to have their footprint on how it's run and their people in critical positions."

Still, legislators in both parties agree the Lansing prison has problems because it is the state's oldest. It has a capacity of 2,405 inmates and was holding 2,374 as of Tuesday.

It still houses inmates in long rows of tiered cells, making it hard for officers to see all of them at once. Norwood said some security equipment is so old that the prison can't find replacement parts and must have them manufactured. Under a lease-purchase agreement, the private company would be responsible for maintenance.

Also, a new prison would be larger, with space for another 207 inmates, for a total of 2,612. The state's adult inmate population has slightly exceeded the prison system's capacity for at least a year and was 2 percent greater on Tuesday.

Democratic Rep. Jeff Pittman, of Leavenworth, said his community and neighboring Lansing are excited about the prospects of a new prison because, "We need one."

The department said the prison has 37 percent turnover among uniformed officers.

"It's not safe," Pittman said. "We're losing people."

Norwood said 68 jobs are now vacant, about 10 percent. He said the prison is on track to spend $2.2 million on overtime and that a more efficient, modern prison will require fewer employees to monitor inmates.

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the largest union for state employees, questioned that assessment, saying staffing is based on the number of inmates.

"I just find it incredibly concerning," she said of the proposal and the department's projections for a smaller staff.

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