Topeka — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she's willing to accept private prisons to get a bill that increases penalties for sex offenders.
"There are a lot of protections in place," Sebelius said of the measure that would authorize the state to enter into a contract for a private prison.
The prison proposal is contained in a bill that would increase prison sentences for sex offenders. While there is nearly unanimous support in the Legislature for the sex offender portion of the bill, there is less support for changing policy to allow private prisons.
The legislation is in a House-Senate conference committee and will be considered when lawmakers return to Topeka on April 26.
Sebelius said passage of the increased sex offender punishments was one of her priorities. She conceded the bill probably will reach her desk with the private prison provision attached.
Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, who has been pushing for approval of a private prison bill, said he was pleased that Sebelius supported the measure.
"It's not a new issue, and we've worked on it for four years now, worked with the secretary of corrections and crafted a bill that meets his concerns," Schmidt said.
Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz has said he is opposed to private prisons but that if adopted by the Legislature he hopes safeguards now in the measure remain.
The provision would give the corrections secretary authority over the construction, licensing and oversight of a private prison.
In addition, under the measure, no private prison could be operated in a county without approval of the county commissioners and a vote of county residents.
But Frank Smith of Bluff City, an outspoken critic of private prisons, said the private prison industry has been plagued with problems such as prison riots, low wages for employees and substandard conditions for inmates.
"Other states have had terrible experiences with legislation such as this, which when passed seemed to provide certain guarantees," Smith said.