TOPEKA A legislative committee is recommending that the Kansas Department of Corrections wait at least another year before committing to a nearly $300 million project to replace the Lansing Correctional Facility.
But that recommendation from the Joint Committee on State Building Construction may have little impact on the final decision, which will likely be made by Gov. Sam Brownback and a small group of legislative leaders sometime in the next few weeks, before the 2018 Legislature convenes Jan. 8.
Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood outlined the plan Thursday to the Joint Committee on State Building Construction. He said the agency is proposing to sign a contract with Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic, a company that builds and operates prisons in several states and which has been the target of several lawsuits over its management of those prisons.
The project calls for replacing the existing maximum security unit, which is more than 150 years old, as well as the medium security unit that dates back to the 1980s, with a single, consolidated 1,920-bed maximum and medium security prison, plus a separate 512-bed minimum security unit.
“I haven’t heard much dissent that there’s a real need to replace the Lansing facility with a more modern design and more up-to-date features in the facility,” Norwood said.
He said some parts of the old prison have become unserviceable, posing a health and safety risk to both staff and inmates. In addition, he said, the Lansing prison requires more staffing than other more modern facilities because it’s designed in a way that gives prison guards only limited lines of sight into the cell blocks.
Norwood is proposing that the state sign a 20-year lease-purchase contract with CoreCivic, which would develop the new facility and be responsible for the major maintenance costs over the term of the lease, although the state would still be in charge of operating the prison. At the end of the lease, ownership of the facility would revert to the state of Kansas.
The new buildings themselves would cost just under $15 million, which Norwood said would be financed with operational savings because they would be much less expensive to operate than the current, outdated prison.
But the contract also would call for paying CoreCivic to maintain the prison during the term of the lease. That would raise the 20-year cost to $293.9 million.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she opposes the plan because a Legislative Post Audit report earlier this year said it would be cheaper to finance the project by issuing bonds.
“Contractors make more money on a lease-purchase option than they will on the bonding approach,” she told reporters during a break in the meeting. “I’m not happy with the fact that the secretary is not being a good steward of taxpayer money. He chose the option that would cost us more.”
Only three companies expressed interest in the project when the Department of Corrections solicited bids earlier this year, and of those only two submitted proposals. Although the department allowed proposals for either lease-purchase or bond financing, neither of the two companies submitted proposals based on issuing bonds.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, also said he opposed the project. Among other things, he argued that the department should have allowed other communities besides Lansing to submit proposals for hosting the new prison.
“In Texas they do it. Communities invest dollars in them and they’re job-creation opportunities. I don’t see why we don’t do the exact same thing,” he told reporters. “This is just about the best use of taxpayer dollars. We’re committing $300 million with the stroke of a pen, and we certainly need to look at every best use of taxpayer dollars we can.”
Members of the Joint Committee did not express much concern over the amount of litigation in which CoreCivic is involved.
CoreCivic, which was formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, operates both public and privately owned prisons throughout the United States. It was sued in its home state of Tennessee earlier this year after an outbreak of scabies infected inmates as well as staff in both the male and female units of a Nashville jail.
The company is also the target of a federal class action lawsuit in California, where immigration detainees at a company-owned detention facility allege they have been forced or coerced to perform cleaning and maintenance tasks, in violation of federal labor laws.
Damon Hininger, president and CEO of the company, told reporters that lawsuits are common in the corrections industry.
“There have been cases of litigation where we’ve had operations where we’ve had incidents and whatnot, but that’s common not only in the public but also in the private sector,” he said.
At Lansing, he said, CoreCivic would only be in charge of overseeing construction and major maintenance of the prison, while operation and management would be done by the Department of Corrections.
During the 2017 session, lawmakers included a proviso in the budget bill they passed in June requiring the Department of Corrections to get approval from the State Finance Council before proceeding. That group, which includes the governor and top leaders and budget chairs from both chambers, has authority to make financial decisions for the state when the Legislature is not in session.
The State Finance Council is expected to meet sometime in December to consider the proposal.