Lawmakers express growing concerns over secrecy and plans for new Lansing prison

The exterior of the Lansing Correctional Center is seen Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Lansing, Kan.

Topeka — Officials from the Kansas Department of Corrections told lawmakers Wednesday that they hope to select a contractor by the end of November to build a new 2,000-bed prison at Lansing, despite the fact that some lawmakers are expressing serious concerns about the project and the secrecy in which it’s being negotiated.

Mike Gaito, director of capital improvements for the department, said the agency received bids on the project last week and that officials are now beginning what he called a “negotiated procurement” process that will be conducted largely behind closed doors.

“We will start those (negotiations) this week,” Gaito told the Joint Committee on State Building Construction. “The estimated time frame is somewhere between six to eight weeks. So we would hope to be back before this committee in probably November.”

During the 2017 session, lawmakers gave the department tentative approval to move forward with plans to replace the maximum and medium security housing units at Lansing with a new facility that can be operated more efficiently and with a smaller staff. But any deal reached while the Legislature is not in session would still need approval from a number of committees, including the State Finance Council.

Part of the existing prison dates back to the 1860s, and officials say that portion requires greater staffing than a modern prison because it doesn’t provide correctional officers with clear lines of sight across large areas.

The agency has proposed building the new facility on a lease-purchase contract, although a Legislative Post Audit review earlier this year said it would be less expensive for the state to finance the project by issuing traditional bonds.

Agency officials would not say how much they expect the project to cost, saying that is subject to negotiation, but members of the committee said they expect the cost to range between $175 million to $200 million.

Corrections officials would not say Wednesday how many companies they are negotiating with. But the Department of Administration said earlier this year that thee companies had expressed interest: CoreCivic of Nashville, Tenn.; GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla.; and a company called Lansing Correctional Partners, a firm ostensibly based in Memphis but about which very little is known.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who serves on the committee, was among those raising concerns about how the project is being negotiated.

“I dislike that process, and I think this is a major step and because of the timing I’d like to see the Legislature back in session when the final decisions are made,” she said.

But Sen. Joe Skubal, R-Overland Park, said he would withhold judgment on the process until he sees the final results.

“I would like to see it more open, but I understand what they’re talking about, trying to negotiate the best deal,” he said. “And if you’re working with two or three firms, they probably don’t want everybody knowing what everybody else is doing.”

Corrections officials, however, have said they expect the project to be “budget neutral” because the savings in operational costs will be greater than the cost of either the bond or lease-purchase payments.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, though, some lawmakers raised questions when Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said most of the cells in the new facility would be designed for double-bunking, even in the maximum security area.

“You know that’s sort of a shift from what we’ve historically done in Kansas with maximum security,” Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said.

Norwood said the state moved away from double-bunking maximum security inmates in response to an overcrowding lawsuit involving Lansing inmates, but he said that was because the existing cells at Lansing are not considered large enough to house two inmates at a time, according to standards of the American Correctional Association.

“The only place that we’re double-bunking now with maximum security inmates is El Dorado, because it was built with cells the size that meet the ACA standard for double-bunking,” Norwood said. “Lansing and Hutchinson, the cells are just too small for that purpose, so we don’t double-bunk at those facilities.”

Norwood said most state prison systems today allow double-bunking of maximum security inmates. But he said another factor in the decision is the fact that single-bunk cells would require a larger facility and more staff, and the state has a hard time recruiting and retaining correctional staff as it is.

“As you know, we’re struggling right now to fill the positions that we have at El Dorado,” he said.