As a push increases to hire a private contractor to build a new Lansing prison and then lease it to the state, some Kansas legislative leaders look warily at the idea.
This week, Gov. Sam Brownback stopped at the Lansing Correctional Facility to make yet another push for his administration’s plan to overhaul it. The visit came just days before a panel of lawmakers could decide the fate of his plan for replacing the deteriorating prison.
Brownback’s plan would use a lease-purchase agreement. A private contractor would construct and maintain the new prison. The state would operate it, but pay to lease the facility for 20 years. Kansas would own the facility at the end of the lease, after paying about $360 million for leasing, maintenance and insurance.
Brownback went to the prison to tout mentoring programs, but he also organized a tour to show reporters the condition of the facility.
A new prison with a more efficient layout would require only about half as many staff and would be safer for both inmates and workers, according to the governor’s proposal. Brownback said the prison, containing some buildings more than 150 years old, simply needs to be rebuilt.
“The structure’s old and smells, but more than that,” the Republican governor said. “It’s not structured for a modern prison.”
Under the plan, the savings from reduced labor costs, about $17 million per year, would be used to pay for leasing the new facility. Over 20 years, the Kansas Department of Corrections estimates building and leasing the new facility would be $23 million cheaper than continuing to operate the current prison.
Brownback’s visit came just two days before the State Finance Council will consider the plan. The panel is made up of the governor and eight legislative leaders.
Yet some lawmakers remain unsure about the plan. Republican House Majority Leader Don Hineman wants assurances the efficiency estimates and projected staff reductions are accurate.
“If those are valid projections, then great, but I’m still in the process of trying to determine if it’s realistic that we really can reduce our staffing to that level,” Hineman said.
Hineman said he’d spend the final days leading up to the meeting pulling together information and deciding whether to support or oppose the plan.
“It’s really critical that we get this right,” he said. “It’s a huge project.”
Democrats on the panel are also skeptical.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward has concerns about the contactor, CoreCivic. He believes the state does need a new prison and it should be in Lansing, but he doesn’t like this proposal.
“What’s in debate is a risky, first-time scheme,” Ward said, “with a partner that has a very bad track record.”
A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general criticized the company’s security record. A lawsuit filed by CoreCivic shareholders has contended that the company’s leadership failed to disclose information about risks to its government contracts.
CoreCivic has countered that renewal of multiple contracts with other states demonstrates its reliability as a partner.
Ward also wants the full Legislature to vote on the plan, not just a panel of nine people. If the State Finance Council rejects the proposal, the issue would be back in the hands of lawmakers.
“We got the whole Legislature here,” he said. “Let’s vet it so the people of Kansas can have a shot at it.”
Brownback has defended the process, pointing out that multiple committees have been briefed on the plan. The governor said lawmakers could have taken steps to stop any proposals in last year’s budget.
“They could have at that time put in a prohibition, if they had chosen, to say ‘we’re going to block this.’ The full Legislature’s been engaged,” Brownback said.
Some legislators who will vote on the proposal have warmed up to the idea. Republican House Appropriations Chairman Troy Waymaster originally had questions about the plan, but he said those have been answered and he’s ready to support the overhaul of the aging facility.
“With a project that scale, you’re always going to have questions,” Waymaster said. “It’s obviously something that needs to be addressed.”
Brownback’s media event at the Lansing prison ended with an unexpected visitor. Lansing Mayor Mike Smith stood up in the audience and told the governor that he and his community want the prison to stay in the area. Smith said the community and the facility have been partners.
“We have no objections to them rebuilding or whatever they decide to do, as long as they stay in Lansing,” Smith said.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.