TOPEKA — Kansas officials are rethinking a decision to house prison inmates in a county jail and have moved all of them back to a state facility after four escaped, including a convicted murderer, the state Department of Corrections said Thursday.
The remaining 18 prison inmates who were held in the Ottawa County Jail have been returned to the state prison in Ellsworth, department spokesman Jeremy Barclay told The Associated Press. Overcrowding at Ellsworth had led the department to transfer inmates in January to the county jail.
The escape of four state inmates Wednesday morning from the jail in Minneapolis, a small town about 120 miles west of Topeka, also spurred debate among state legislators about prison overcrowding and keeping inmates in county lockups.
Two inmates remained at large: Santos Carrera-Morales and Eric James, both 22. Carrera-Morales was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for a double-slaying in 2007, while James was serving time for 2008 convictions of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping and criminal damage.
“We are reassessing our jail placement in Ottawa County right now, just during this period,” Barclay said. “This is an interim step while the investigation is taking place.”
Two of the four inmates who escaped were apprehended Wednesday.
Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman said he and police quickly apprehended one escapee in Minneapolis, the town where the jail is located. Authorities said the other, Drew Wade, 21, convicted of robbery and aggravated battery, traveled in a stolen minivan about 240 miles to North Platte, Neb., where, police said, he turned himself in at a Walmart store.
The department said that as of Wednesday, it housed 88 male inmates in four county jails under contracts paying the counties an average of $40 a day per inmate. The state had another nine inmates who are nearing their release from prison in a work program in Johnson County.
County lockups apply to the state but must pass an inspection that includes a review of training and facilities. An Ottawa County website said its jail can house 60 offenders and opened in 1996, listing eight corrections officers on its staff.
Coleman told Associated Press Radio the inmates used homemade knives to overpower two guards, get into the jail’s control room and unlock doors. He said the four had been in the same area of the jail for less than a week before the escape.
“They didn’t have a lot of time to plan,” he said. “We have different rooms in the facility, and they weren’t all together for a very long time.”
Sending inmates to Ottawa County allowed the state to keep the population at the Ellsworth prison, about 50 miles to the southwest, below its capacity of 818 inmates. As of Wednesday, the state had 8,660 male inmates, exceeding its bed space by 218, or 2.6 percent.
“It’s time for a dedicated discussion about the needs of public safety and what it costs to run a system,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in an interview.
The prison system’s budget has declined in recent years as the state has faced financial problems. The current budget for the department and its prisons is about $274 million, down from $293 million four years earlier.
But lawmakers are considering proposals to increase prison space. The Department of Corrections wants to buy a boys’ home in Ellsworth and convert it into minimum-security prison space for 95 inmates. Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed reopening corrections camps in southeast Kansas that closed two years ago and converting them to housing for 262 geriatric inmates.
Both proposals would allow the state to shuffle relatively low-risk offenders out of other space, opening up those beds.
Rep. Virgil Peck, a Tyro Republican who’s chairman of a budget subcommittee on prisons, said he prefers to have inmates housed in state institutions because “our guys are a little more aware of what’s going on” in handling inmates.
And Rep. Pat Colloton, chairwoman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, suggested the state needs to provide training to staffs of county jails.
“The facility was fine, but you still need people trained enough to know how prisoners act,” Colloton, a Leawood Republican, said of Ottawa County. “We haven’t really focused on that.”
Barclay said the Department of Corrections has had informal, internal discussions since the escape about offering supplemental training.
But Undersheriff Bill Mueller of Cowley County, where the jail was holding more than 40 state inmates as of Wednesday, said those offenders do not seem more dangerous than county prisoners. The Cowley County Jail opened in 2008 and has space for 220 inmates, with a staff of 26.
Mueller said Cowley County isn’t rethinking its contract with the state to house its inmates.
“We’ve not had any significant problems with them,” he said. “There’s no significant difference overall.”