Kansas prison system overcrowded and understaffed, says Department of Corrections secretary

? The state prison system is overcrowded and understaffed, Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts said Tuesday.

Roberts told members of the House-Senate Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight that corrections staff were performing well under pressure.

“I don’t think things are in a crisis mode, but it’s tight,” he said.

Roberts said that budget cuts over the past few years have reduced staff and programs designed to prevent recidivism and to help inmates succeed once they get out of prison.

Meanwhile the Legislature continues to approve bills that increase prison sentences, which leads to a “stacking effect” in the system.

“We can build, we can contract, or we can look at early-release mechanisms,” Roberts said.

As of Sept. 1, the state had 9,236 inmates in a system with a capacity of 9,164. Some of the over-capacity inmates are being kept in the Cowley County jail through a contract with the county, Roberts said.

And in the current fiscal year, 95 positions in the Corrections Department were cut because of budget cuts enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback. Another 45 workers are taking advantage of an early-retirement incentive program.

State Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said he feared any more job reductions would jeopardize the safety of prison employees.

Roberts agreed, saying, “I wouldn’t go any further.”

Budget cuts have also reduced programs that allowed inmates to work on getting a GED or other educational opportunities.

One of the immediate problems is setting aside space for inmates with mental illnesses, which Roberts said is about 27 percent of the prison population.

“We need more mental health beds, no question about it,” he said.

Roberts said the department is putting together an “exhaustive plan” on managing prison space and discussing that with Brownback’s office.

Included in the various options under consideration, he said, was releasing inmates early who are at a low risk of re-offending, and keeping them under house arrest and monitoring them by electronic means.

No decision has been made yet on the house-arrest proposal, and Roberts said he would not jeopardize safety with any plan. “If I feel like we have safety situations, I will let someone know very quickly,” he said.

While the down economy has led to budget cuts, Roberts said it has also resulted in less turnover of prison guards, which means a more experienced work force.