Topeka Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced Friday that a veteran warden will run a state corrections system beset by overcrowding and still facing questions about the past management of its women’s prison.
Brownback appointed Ray Roberts as his corrections secretary, saying Roberts emerged as the top candidate even after a nationwide search. Roberts has been the warden at the state’s maximum-security prison for men in El Dorado since 2003, and his career in corrections spans 35 years.
The new governor immediately sought to give Roberts and the Department of Corrections additional responsibilities, signing an executive reorganization order to abolish the state Parole Board as a money-saving move and transfer its duties to a three-person board to be appointed by Roberts. Brownback also pledged to work to keep criminals from becoming repeat offenders — to control the state’s prison population — but didn’t offer specific proposals.
Roberts’ selection filled the last vacancy in Brownback’s Cabinet, less than two weeks after the Republican governor took office. The state Senate must confirm the appointment.
“We searched all across the country for the best person to serve in this job, and we had that person right here under our noses,” Brownback said during a Statehouse news conference. “He knows the system. He knows it well. He loves it. He loves the work.”
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, questioned promoting someone within the department to the top job, calling the agency “rife with all kinds of problems.”
“The best call would have been to bring in somebody outside,“ Hensley said.
Roberts, 59, a Pascagoula, Miss., native, began his career as a corrections officer in that state in 1975 and later served as warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, as well as Kansas’ maximum-security prison in Lansing. He also was warden at the state prison in Ellsworth before moving into the job at El Dorado.
The Kansas Department of Corrections runs eight prisons and has a budget of $285 million and about 3,200 employees. Several months ago, the number of male inmates began exceeding the state capacity of about 8,259, meaning legislators and other state officials will have to consider ways to find more space. As of Thursday, the state had 8,383 male inmates in its custody.
Brownback’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would increase the state tax dollars for the prison system by nearly $45 million — more than 20 percent — largely to offset the expected loss of federal economic stimulus dollars. It excludes open corrections officer jobs from the 2,000 unfilled government positions that Brownback expects to eliminate and leaves open the possibility of contracting for bed space.
But the governor said he also wants to attack the causes of repeat offending, to slow the growth of the prison population. Brownback made a point of noting that Roberts worked with nonprofit groups while warden at El Dorado and the state prison in Ellsworth to set up spiritual life centers to help inmates change.
“What we want to do is look at every option internally,” Roberts said. “And building would be a last resort, obviously.”
Brownback said he and Roberts have discussed past issues with the management of the Topeka Correctional Facility and promised that Roberts will do a review of the women’s prison.
A year ago, the National Institute of Corrections recommended tighter procedures at the women’s prison following allegations of widespread illegal sex between staff and female inmates and suggestions of a black market in which drugs were exchanged for sex. The department had said the allegations were exaggerated, but the prison’s warden was reassigned at his own request hours after the institute’s report was released.
“I think maybe there were some judgment issues,” Roberts said. “There were some issues that needed to be changed; some policies need to be changed.”
Meanwhile, Brownback is seeking to abolish the Parole Board to save $496,000 annually. His executive reorganization order must be submitted to the Legislature, but it will take effect July 1 unless one chamber rejects it within 60 days.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, pursued the idea unsuccessfully last year. Critics worry that the Department of Corrections will have an incentive to release dangerous criminals early if its prisons become crowded, as they are now. Hensley called it “an inherent conflict of interest.”
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, added: “An independent body that makes those decisions is probably best.”
But Brownback noted that the number of inmates who are eligible for parole has dwindled to about 500 over time because the state moved in the 1990s to imposing set prison terms, rather than a range of time a criminal could serve. He said the federal government already has made a similar move.