Legislature expected to pass private prisons bill

Prisoners would be able to move into counties only where voters approve measure

For-profit prisons aren’t likely to pop up across the Kansas plains overnight if, as expected, the Legislature approves a law this week allowing the prisons to be built here.

In fact, the law wouldn’t necessarily mean that private prisons would ever be used to house existing Kansas prisoners. But it would allow for the industry to set up shop and begin housing out-of-state prisoners in any Kansas county where voters approve the idea.

In Frank Smith’s view, it’s a slippery slope. Smith, a critic of private prisons who lives in Bluff City, believes that Kansas is “buying a lemon” by opening the door to a business he claims is fundamentally flawed.

“I don’t believe you can have an efficacious private prison because the profit motive rules everything,” he said. “I don’t think there are any legitimate protections in this bill. They can build anywhere they can convince the locals – the rubes and hicks – that it’s not such a bad thing.”

What the law says

Efforts to allow private prisons have failed repeatedly in the Legislature in recent years. But this year the prison bill found new life after it was “bundled” with a law increasing sentences for child molesters.

The Legislature is expected to take up the bill this week as it enters the second week of its wrap-up session.

Under the law, private contractors could build and operate prisons that would be under the oversight of the Kansas Department of Corrections. Private prison companies would be required to submit a plan to the state for dealing with emergencies at the prisons, and they would be liable for all emergency-related costs.

If the private operator becomes unable to run the prison, there’s no obligation for the state to step in and assume costs.

Woodson County in southeast Kansas is expected to be the first place in the state to allow a private prison should the law pass.

“This would not save us by any means, but it would give us a cornerstone in economic development,” County Commissioner Gwen Martin said. “I think the majority of the population feels very secure about having the prison here.”

Secretary concerned

Martin said she didn’t understand why some people were so vocally opposed to private prisons, given that Kansas occasionally has contracted with private prisons in Texas and Colorado to house overflow prisoners.

Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections, said he doesn’t pretend that public prisons are problem-free, but that he’s not sure the cost savings with private prisons are as great as some people believe.

“I’m not a fan of them,” he said. “I don’t support them, but if that’s going to be the policy of the state, the language in the statute needs to be as strong as possible in terms of regulating operations and construction of the prisons so as to protect the state’s financial interests and protect public safety.”

Werholtz said he was concerned that the private-prison industry supported “tough-on-crime” policies as a way to drive up demand.

“I have to say I am concerned about that,” he said. “I have seen no evidence that that’s taking place in Kansas.”

Another worry, he said, is that pressure eventually would grow to start housing Kansas Department of Corrections prisoners at a private prison in the state.

“You start getting decisions made not on the basis of what is good correctional practice,” he said. “You get them made on what is the best economic interests of that community.”

Colorado problem

Smith, a retired social worker, argues that private prisons are chronically understaffed and don’t pay enough to keep good employees. He said there’s no hard evidence that there are more disturbances inside private prisons, but that the mingling of out-of-state inmate populations – who often have unequal treatment because of differences in their states’ respective contracts – is an inherent problem.

On July 20, 2004, inmates at the privately run Crowley County Correctional Facility near Pueblo, Colo., demanded to speak to a warden about grievances. One problem was that a group of recently imported inmates from Washington state were earning $60 a month for work assignments, compared with $18.60 for Colorado inmates.

The inmates were denied an audience, and they grew hostile. The staff was inexperienced and had not had enough training for an emergency, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Corrections.

So the staff evacuated. Inmates started fires, broke into the management offices, and broke water pipes, sinks and toilets, causing cells to flood with contaminated water.

A pending lawsuit filed by inmates alleges that when a special-operations team came in with backup to reclaim the prison, guards brutalized inmates – forcing them to lie face-down in contaminated water and dragging people from their cells by their ankles. As the night went on, inmates were forced to urinate and defecate in their pants because they weren’t allowed to go to the restroom, the suit alleges.

Steve Owen is a spokesman for Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the Colorado prison where the riot happened. He said that since the event, the company has responded effectively and that the Colorado Department of Corrections has recently increased its use of the prison.

“Regrettably, incidents do occur in corrections, and they occur in both private and public facilities,” he said.

He pointed out that, despite critics’ complaints, his company has a track record of a 95 percent renewal rate of its government contracts.

“To have that high of a renewal rate, we have to be doing something right,” he said.