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Chat about the prison system with Roger Werholtz

December 19, 2006

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Roger Werholtz

Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz will be here for a chat at 1:30 Tuesday, Dec. 19. He will talk about issues related to his department - and about last week's Lawrence conference that revealed Kansas is on track to run out of prison space within two years unless something changes.

Moderator:

Good afternoon. This is Dennis Anderson, managing editor of the Lawrence Journal-World. I will be moderating today's online chat with Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz. Welcome, secretary.

Roger Werholtz:

Thank you. It"s good to be here.

Moderator:

We have several questions, so we'll just jump right in.

bert:

Your reentry initiative for inmates being released from prison is visionary. Please briefly discuss the harm reduction model for the readers. Thanks.

Roger Werholtz:

There are two elements to our work which is now labeled Risk Management. The first is Risk containment which refers to limiting the environment in which negative offender behavior can occur. That is what people think of most often, i.e.prisons. The second element is risk reduction which refers to reducing negative offender behavior once offenders are released to return to the community. We approach this by trying to tailor individual plans that address unique issues that contribute to renewed criminal behavior.

webmocker:

Greetings Secretary Werholtz,

Given the pressure the present approach to drugs puts on our prisons, and the fact that increasing numbers of past and present law enforcement personnel support change (see www.leap.cc), could you envision supporting a system of regulation rather than prohibition as more effective way to deal with the drug problem?

Thank you,

Web

Roger Werholtz:

I do not support decriminalizing drugs, but I also think that treatment for people suffering from addictions is a more cost effective way of addressing the destruction that occurs when people get caught up in substance abuse. I don't believe that treatment always needs to occur in a secure setting, but sometimes people won't stay in one placce long enough to complete treatment. There is ample evidence that coerced treatment is as effective as voluntary programs.

kansasmutualaid:

What is the average pay for a prisoner employed by the Kansas Corrections Industries? How does this compare to other states?

Roger Werholtz:

Good question. Inmates employed directly by Kansas Correctional Industries can earn anywhere from $0.40 to $1.05 per hour. Inmates employed by private industries located in or near our facilities must earn at least the federal minimum wage and can earn up to the prevailing market wage for the type of job in that area. Inmates in work release earn the same pay as civilians in the same job. Inmates working traditional prison jobs earn from $0.40 to $1.05 per day.

kansasmutualaid:

With the current boom in the prison population, and massive overcrowding already occuring, does the Department contract out prisoners to other prisons in other states? Is there a plan to in the future if it does not already?

Roger Werholtz:

We have contracted for private prison beds in the past to house our overflow population. Those beds were in Colorado and Texas. We currently have a contract in place but are not using it, because we don't currently need the beds. I would always prefer to keep prisoners in state in our own prisons. They are closer to their families which makes them more likely to succeed upon release, and we know they are more likely to be better prepared for release if we are working with them.

enochville:

There are individuals managing the day to day operations of the prison system, but who is looking at the big picture? I think the prison system needs a major overhaul, one in which the focus is on preparing individuals psychologically to meet their needs in the real world. In my opinion, countries like Sweden have much more effective prison systems than the US. One of my life goals is to use research to direct a paradigm shift in the American prison system. Whom should I contact?

Roger Werholtz:

My job is to focus on "big pisture" issues. I strongly agree that prison operations and programming should be research based and outcomes driven. We are currently in the process of retraining staff to give them a case management skill set to comlement their security skills and responsibilities. One of the neat things about my job is that, through the auspices of the National Institute of Corrections, I get to sit down at the table and talk to the leading criminal justice researchers in the world and bring their ideas back to Kansas.

What you see on TV and in the movies is often a very inaccurate picture of what modern prison operations are really like. I think you would be encouraged to see how many of your suggestions are already in place or being put in place.

Moderator:

I have a question: Now that the kansas death penalty has been ruled constitutional, who will be the first death row inmate in kansas executed and when?

Roger Werholtz:

I don't know the answer to that. No executions have been currently scheduled.

bert:

Please discuss how many new prison beds recent legislation will require and the associated cost to taxpayers.

Roger Werholtz:

The Sentencing Commission projects that we will need in excess of 1,800 new beds over the next several years. We have done some preliminary cost estimates to bring those beds on line. Construction will exceed $180,000,000. Annual operating costs for those beds, once they are all on line, will be almost $50,000,000 per year in current dollars.

kansasmutualaid:

What is the average budget for medical care for prisoners in Kansas? How does this compare to similar departments in other states?

Roger Werholtz:

Our current medical/mental health contract is about $43,000,000 annually. That covers all medical, hospital, dental, optometric and mental health care and fully indemnifies the state. Currently it is difficult to compare with other states, because health care and mental health care is delivered in so many different ways. When we have tried to do comparisons, we compare favorably when all costs are factored in. As an aside, I would like to point out that inmates do not receive any elective medical procedures. We require our contractor to provide the community standard of care for conservative treatment. That means no luxuries but offenders do receive necessary care.

Moderator:

Some prosecutors say Jessica's Law has clogged up the criminal justice system with defendants demanding jury trials. What effect has the law had on the corrections system?

Roger Werholtz:

It has had no effect YET. The changes produced by that law have yet to work their way through to our part of the system. However, this law is one of the major drivers in the population increase projected by the Sentencing Commission.

lawrence_citizen:

This is more of a federal question, but relates very well to the issue at hand at the state level. Wouldn't reviving the parole system for non-violent offenders help reduce costs as well as provide more space for the violent and habitual offenders?

Roger Werholtz:

Actually, Kansas has done a better job than most states in reserving prison space for violent and sexual offenders. While property and drug possession offenders can eventually end up in prison, the first and second responses (and sometimes more responses) are community placement on probation or in community corrections programs. While Kansas technically has very few people on parole, we still have parole officers supervising over 5,500 offenders after they were released from prison and Kansas has more than 20,000 people under community supervision as an alternative to going to prison.

This state emphasizes trying to address the issues that lead a person to criminal behavior as a first response to making us all safer. We try to be smart about crime as well as tough.

kansasmutualaid:

I find it interesting that the Kansas Department of Corrections employs Margie Phelps and Fred Phelps, Jr. (members of the Westboro Baptist Church and the infamous Phelps familiy) as attorneys for the Department. They both have been temporarily suspended from praticing law on multiple occasions due to their activities. Do you not feel that this is a conflict of interest for the Department?

Roger Werholtz:

Fred Phelps, Jr. is an attorney for the department. Margie Phelps is the director of release planning. Both are long time employees of the department. I have stated previously that I and the vast majority of employees of the Department of Corrections do not agree with the views expressed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

That being said, both of these individuals do very good work for the department. They do not bring their views into the work place and there is no evidence that they are ineffective in their jobs because of their personal views.

Mr. Phelps is in compliance with all licensure requirements to practice law in the state.

Kropotkin:

I believe Oklahoma and other states have had terrible experiences, including many riots, with private prisons. Would Kansas therefore be best advised to expand its own public prisons and continue to prohibit new for-profit prisons? Could Yates Center, with a meager workforce, support any large prison at all, public or private?

Roger Werholtz:

I would prefer that Kansas not entertain the opening of private prisons in this state and have testified to that effect before the legislature over the last few years. If, however, the legislature determines that it wishes to adopt that policy, I have encourage them to give the Department of Corrections sufficient authority to regulate private prisons in this state.

My concern with private prisons is based on experiences of other states and comments I haver heard from directors in other states, some of whom have private prisons within their borders. I am concerned about the influence they can have on state correctional policy. Private prisons have an inherent incentive to increase prison populations. Some, perhaps many, people would agree that is desirable.

Private prisons have marketed themselves as a cost effective alternative to publicly operated prisons. However, most of the research available on the issue does not support that claim. Savings are usually achieved by lower wages and benefits for staff, lower programming and treatment services and limited willingness to pay for the full cost of medical care.

Moderator:

That completes today's chat. I want to thank our readers and Secretary Werholtz.

Roger Werholtz:

I have enjoyed this opportunity and the questions. I think the more people know about what really happens in our corrections system (and what does not happen), the better they will feel about how their resources are being spent.

Moderator:

Sorry. One more question.

enochville:

One quick follow up question: How can I find out what programs are in place and their protocols to help inmates prepare for successful life upon their release?

Roger Werholtz:

Please feel free to contact our Public Information Officer, Frances Breyne, directly at 785-296-5873. Or visit our public website by doing an internet search for Kansas Department of Corrections.

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