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Archive for Sunday, April 21, 1996

T CONVINCE OFFICIALS

April 21, 1996

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State corrections officials say it would be cheaper to expand federal jails than to help operate private facilities.

Small towns around the state believe if they build a private prison, development will come. But inmates may not.

Secretary of Corrections Charles Simmons said recently completed or planned renovation projects at existing state correctional facilities should meet the demands of forecasted inmate populations into the next century. And even if they didn't meet demands, Simmons said he wouldn't have the money to pay private prisons to house inmates.

Simmons said prison renovation projects would increase state prison capacity to 8,000 -- which should meet projection demands through the year 2001.

If approved, projects to convert state hospitals in Topeka and Winfield into correctional facilities could meet expected increases in inmate population to the end of the next decade, Simmons said. By 2006, the inmate population is projected to rise to 8,400, he said.

At Topeka State Hospital, conversion plans range from an $18.4 million project that would add 841 beds to a $17 million project that would add 988 beds. At Winfield, plans range from a $13.8 million project that would add 596 beds to a $10.5 million project that would add 370 beds. The Department of Corrections prepared the conversion estimates at the request of Gov. Bill Graves.

"If our projections are accurate and we add the beds coming on line, we would not need any more facilities on an immediate basis," Simmons said. "If we get portions or all of the state hospitals, we would have even more beds, and it would be even longer in the future before we need more than that."

Empty purse

While Kansas small towns like Greensburg and Yates Center are looking at the possibility of building prisons as an economic development tool, Simmons said he has no money in his budget to pay the per-day rate of housing inmates in such facilities.

"I could not go out today and contract for placement of any number of inmates because I don't have the money to pay for it," Simmons said. "I would have to take money from other areas where it's needed to run the facilities we have."

An earlier DOC proposal for a $35 million expansion of the state prison at El Dorado is on the back burner because the governor asked corrections officials for other options to deal with a growing inmate population.

State Rep. Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, said he thought proposals to build and operate private prisons more cheaply than the state may have helped DOC come up with alternatives to the $35 million expansion of El Dorado.

"There was also a tremendous amount of pressure applied last fall by the Legislature expressing, in no uncertain terms, they wanted options to look at other than the $35 million expansion," McKinney said. "At first DOC resisted, but now they've been exploring other options."

But DOC spokesman Bill Miskell said the private prison proposals have nothing to do with the department coming up with other alternatives.

"We were anticipating that we were going to have federal matching funds through the crime bill," Miskell said, referring to at least part of the proposed funds that would have helped expand El Dorado. "We don't know when or how much money will be available from the federal government. We've also been able to identify several other renovation projects that would add to our capacity at a lesser cost."

But Mike Grogan, a consultant working with leaders in Yates Center on a proposal to build a 1,000-bed prison in that city, said legislators may see partially privatizing corrections as a cheaper mode of operation. Grogan has worked with a group of four corporations to build, finance and operate private prisons in 10 states.

State savings

"I think this Legislature and the governor are of the opinion that when jury says life, they mean life," Grogan said. "People are willing to pay for that train of thought but want to save money wherever they can. Privatization saves money to go for highways, hospitals, welfare and other things. In New Mexico, the state was spending $90 a day for housing inmates. We're doing it for half that."

Grogan believes the state's current renovation projects may not solve its long-term needs. He said a private facility could guarantee those needs are met -- at a much cheaper cost than what the state can do itself.

"They could double-bunk at El Dorado, but it's not going to solve the problem down the road," Grogan said. "You have to ask yourself, 'Does that solve the long-range needs? Does the state want to spend another $50, $60, $70 million on another 500-bed facility?' There is an alternative without the state having to rob Peter to pay Paul."

Joseph Vaughn, a consultant working with Greensburg on its prison proposal, agreed. His company helped officials in Bent County, Colo., finance a county-run prison that is pumping $705,000 into county coffers each year.

"They're wrestling with their needs and requirements, and it's difficult to decide what to do and make a commitment," Vaughn said of state corrections officials. "I think they'll find in a year, they're shy 1,000 beds. When you start looking at major cities, you'll find a hell of a lot of people are out on bond and there are a bunch of unserved warrants."

Housing restrictions

If cities in Kansas did decide to build private prisons, they are outlawed from housing out-of-state prisoners in their facilities unless the inmates were federal prisoners. The private facilities could house county prisoners from counties with an overflow of inmates -- though there would be no guarantees of how many inmates the facility could get. State officials say they don't have any immediate plans to study the issue of housing state prisoners in private facilities.

"We've done no feasibility study on how a private facility would fit into our overall operational scheme," Simmons said. "It's an option we could look at, but whether it's viable or not depends on our needs, the cost, and whether we feel comfortable with the facilities. ... In the end, it's something the Legislature would have to act on because they would have to make an appropriation to pay for the per diem costs."

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