An April 18 jailbreak in Minneapolis, Kan., has drawn needed attention to the potential problems that arise when state prisoners are housed in county jails.
The four state inmates who escaped from the Ottawa County Jail included a Wichita gang member convicted of gunning down two teens. All four of the inmates were recaptured within three days, but their escape got the attention of officials with the Kansas Department of Corrections.
In addition to Ottawa County, state inmates are being housed in three other medium- or maximum-security jails in Butler, Cowley and Leavenworth counties. They have been placed in county jails to alleviate crowded conditions at state prison facilities.
However, after the Ottawa County incident, the Department of Corrections decided to remove inmates convicted of murder or sex crimes from the county jails and return them to state prisons. According to news reports, even though corrections officials had confidence in the safety and security of the county jails they were using, they moved inmates to “be sensitive to the public’s perception.”
There’s an old saying about perception being reality. It’s a bit cavalier to portray the escape of four inmates, including a convicted murderer, as simply a perception problem. Based on the Minneapolis incident, Kansans have a right to wonder whether using county jails to house state inmates poses a safety risk in the state.
At least for now, corrections officials have decided not to place more state inmates in the Ottawa County Jail. That move could be intended simply to ease the public’s concerns or it could be an indication state officials have some doubts about that jail’s ability to handle the responsibility of state inmates.
Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts told the Wichita Eagle that the use of county jails is necessary to deal with crowding in state prison facilities. He said the department currently is 200 inmates over capacity and he is hopeful the Kansas Legislature will approve funding to expand the number of prison beds. That may be a necessary short-term solution, but it’s too bad the state isn’t putting more emphasis on restoring funding that was cut several years ago for programs that had proven highly successful in reducing the need for more prison beds by reducing the number of released inmates who returned to prison.
For now, the primary job of the corrections department is to house state inmates in a manner that protects the safety and security of both inmates and noninmates in Kansas. The Minneapolis escape indicates that the state’s current system for providing that protection may need some review.