TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas plans to have the largest private prison operator in the U.S. build a replacement for the state’s oldest and largest lockup and pay for the project by leasing the new prison from the firm for 20 years.
But legislators in both parties immediately had misgivings about the plan announced Thursday by the state Department of Corrections for Core Civic Inc., based in Nashville, Tennessee, to oversee construction of the new prison for 2,400 inmates in Lansing, near Kansas City. Parts of the existing prison date to the 1860s, and state officials contend a modern facility would be safer while operating with 46 percent fewer employees.
Two legislative committees are reviewing the plan, and legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback must formally sign off next month for the two-year, $170 million project to go forward. Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told one of the committees Thursday that a lease-purchase deal is best because CoreCivic assumes the risk of cost overruns.
“I haven’t heard much dissent that there’s a real need to replace the Lansing facility,” Norwood said. The department said abandoning old-style tiers of cells in long rows in favor of modern housing pods will give officers “better views of inmate movements.”
CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of American, owns, controls or manages more than 80 facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia, with roughly 90,000 beds. It also has been the subject of lawsuits and critical audits in six states, including Kansas.
The firm would only oversee construction, hiring local subcontractors, and handle repairs and upkeep, Kansas officials said.
“The solution that we’re bringing to the table is a complete risk transfer,” Damon Hininger, the company’s president and CEO, told reporters during a break in the committee’s meeting. “We’re completely on the hook.”
Lawmakers approved the project earlier this year but authorized both a lease-purchase agreement and up to $155 million in state bonds to finance the project — and amount the department now says is too low, with rising construction costs.
Brownback’s administration is still pushing a lease-purchase deal even after a state audit in July suggested bond financing would be cheaper over time.
Republican state Rep. J.R. Claeys, of Salina, dislikes the lease-purchase arrangement and questioned why the department didn’t consider other communities. Corrections officials said Lansing already has a long history with prisons and has infrastructure that will make the project cheaper, but Claeys was skeptical.
State Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the lease-purchase agreement is likely to result in more profit for CoreCivic. She dismissed the department’s argument that the audit’s conclusions were based on outdated cost estimates.
Kelly said of Norwood, “I think he’s playing the Legislature.”
Two other companies expressed an interest in the project, though only one, GEO Group of Boca Raton, Florida, submitted a bid. CoreCivic’s bid was significantly lower: An annual payment starting at $15 million, with lease, maintenance and insurance costs totaling $362 million over 20 years.
Staffing would be lower at the new prison — 371 employees instead of the current 682 positions — but 133 of those existing jobs, or nearly 20 percent, are vacant. Brownback ordered pay raises for corrections officers earlier this year because of staffing problems at state prisons.
CoreCivic has faced a range of allegations about its private prisons and jails in federal lawsuits in Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia. In Kansas lawsuits, it is being sued over the taping of attorney-inmate meetings but denies wrongdoing.
A state audit earlier this month in Tennessee said CoreCivic lockups there were understaffed and some staffing information was riddled with errors or hadn’t been shared with the state. The U.S. Department of Justice issued critical reports on CoreCivic-run federal facilities in Leavenworth, Kansas, in April, and in Natchez, Mississippi, in December 2016.
But Hininger said more than 93 percent of the company’s contracts with government agencies are renewed, showing that it is “performing at a high level.”