Opinion: No easy fix to Kansas prison problem

Sometimes I wonder how long we will be talking about fixing the problems that former Gov. Sam Brownback left Kansas. Our latest Brownback heartburn is prisons. The news that Kansas officials are considering sending inmates to a private prison in Arizona has generated understandable controversy.

Bluntly, the Brownback administration gutted the Kansas prison system, the Legislature often enabled him, and Kansas now faces a desperate situation with no easy or cheap solution.

The Kansas press has well documented the problems in Kansas prisons: hundreds of vacant positions for corrections officers, mandatory overtime for overwhelmed and underappreciated employees, overcrowding, conditions that jeopardize prisoner health, and prison riots.

Since assuming office, Gov. Laura Kelly has repeatedly used the term “triage” to describe her approach to the Brownback policy legacy. That decently describes using private prisons as an imperfect short-term option to address a gigantic mess that cannot be fixed overnight.

Part of what makes the private prison option unappealing is the company that it forces Kansas to keep — CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Locally, CoreCivic has been accused of violating wiretap laws at the Leavenworth Detention Center, and has been a central player in the Lansing prison controversy. Its facilities elsewhere have attracted media attention for inmate abuse, understaffing and poor management. Yet, there are few options for desperate states like Kansas with overcrowded prisons since media reports estimate that CoreCivic and its competitor GEO Group hold roughly 80% of the national private prison market.

CoreCivic is also no stranger to Kansas politics. It and GEO Group are generous campaign donors. In 2018, CoreCivic hedged its bets, donating $2,000 to Kris Kobach and $1,000 to Kelly, even though she had publicly criticized the company. Other Kansas politicians accepting private prison campaign money include Jerry Moran, Pat Roberts, Kevin Yoder, Vicki Schmidt, Derek Schmidt, Kathleen Sebelius and various state legislators.

But the private prison industry’s favorite Kansas politician has been Brownback, who left Kansas a prison crisis as a parting gift. He accepted campaign money from Prison Health Services Inc., whose post-merger successor Corizon holds a state contract for health care in Kansas prisons and retains Brownback’s former chief-of-staff as its lobbyist. Kansas officials have penalized Corizon for performance failures.

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission reports that Brownback’s gubernatorial account took $4,000 from CCA and $7,000 from its CEO. This close relationship made even one Republican legislator publicly imply impropriety in rewarding the company the Lansing prison contract given the revolving door of Brownback staffers subsequently hired as lobbyists by the company up to present day.

The ironic twist here is how Kansas legislative leaders have now decided to insert themselves into prison policy, clutching their proverbial pearls at how the Kelly administration is handling matters. Many of these same leaders took a mostly hands-off approach to legislative oversight under their ally Brownback, never effectively checking how his administration managed the prison system while defending the Brownback tax policies that starved that system.

Fortunately, some progress was made this year on increasing corrections funding. But the system’s problems remain, and Kansas cannot solve these problems long-term with Band-aids like outsourcing prisoners to private prison companies whose political and business practices fuel every worst fear about that industry.

Long-term progress on prisons requires genuine bipartisan commitment from policymakers, something that was lacking under Brownback. It requires a Legislature that truly care s about the problem and not a Legislature that suddenly cares just because a Democrat is governor. It took years to torch this system, and it will take years and more unattractive short-term remedies to fix it.

— Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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