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Kansas May Build Specialty Prisons To Deal With Elderly Inmates And Drug Problems

A panel of criminal justice officials proposed three specialty prisons that are estimated to cost the state $35 million to renovate and build.
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
A panel of criminal justice officials proposed three specialty prisons that are estimated to cost the state $35 million to renovate and build.

TOPEKA, Kansas — One solution to Kansas prisons’ woes could come with a $35 million price tag for three new specialty prisons.

The state’s corrections system only treats half of its inmates who struggle with substance abuse. And as some people serve decades-long sentences, the system finds itself home to more elderly prisoners who need special care as they age.

Lawmakers created the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission to address those issues, as well as chronic overcrowding that resulted in hundreds of inmates being sent to aprivate prison in Arizona earlier this year.

In a report released this week, the panel of legislators, court employees, mental health experts, police and state officials signed off on a series of recommendations for the Kansas Legislature to consider when it convenes in January:

  • Repurpose and renovate a prison building to serve as a 250-bed geriatric care facility. Estimated cost:  $9-10 million for renovations, $8.3 million per year for operations
  • Re-purpose and renovate a prison building to house about 250 inmates for substance abuse treatment. Estimated cost: $3.5-4.5 million for renovations, $4.1 million for operations
  • Build a new substance abuse treatment prison with about 240 beds. Estimated cost: $20.7 million just for construction
  • Increase spending and capacity for the state’s overwhelmed mental health hospitals, a proposal already recommended by a state mental health task force for two years. Estimated cost: at least $86.8 million
  • Reduce sentences, fines and fees for some minor crimes
  • Allow state funding for people charged with drug crimes to undergo treatment instead of going to trial

The intent is to reduce the state’s prison population, which exceeds capacity and is projected to grow over the next decade.

Increased mental health and substance abuse treatment could cut the number of people who enter prison and who return once they’re released, said Kansas Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from central Kansas and vice-chair of the commission.

But convincing legislators to vote in favor of putting more money toward the issue could be a challenge, Owens said.

“There’s going to be some people that simply don’t want to spend money on it,” he said. “Because they may or may not believe that that is the correct answer to solve the problem.”

“The vast majority of inmates that enter the system are going to be coming out,” Owens said. “Why not help them become productive members of society?”

More than a decade ago, Kansas passed laws that let judges sentence people to a term in a specialized substance abuse prison, said state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also a member of the commission. But the state never funded or built that kind of prison.

“The sentencing rules had no value,” Schmidt said. “Our recommendation was simply to finish what was started more than a decade ago.”

The state offers substance abuse programs in all of its prisons and treated about 1,600 people last year. But about 1,800 people who needed treatment didn’t get it, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Adding prisons that specialize in addiction treatment would help meet that demand, said Joel Hrabe, deputy secretary of facility management for the corrections department. The treatments include group therapy, addiction education and in rare cases, medication-assisted treatment.

“If you can create an environment that reinforces your programming,” he said, “it helps the success rate.”

A prison specifically for geriatric care will also help the department manage the special needs of older prisoners, Hrabe said. Harsher sentencing guidelines adopted in the 1990s led to longer sentences for some inmates. That’s partly why so many elderly people sit in prisons now. Recently, the department has seen more inmates with Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive issues, he said.

“It takes a little different approach to managing them when they become irritated, combative, confrontational,” Hrabe said. “The environment … doesn’t lend to the type of care that would be most beneficial for these individuals.”

Before the facilities can be built and staffed, the Legislature still needs to find and approve funding for a traditionally unpopular issue.

But legislators approved $16 million to house Kansas inmates at a private prison in Arizona earlier this year, Owens said. He argued building specialty facilities in state could save more money in the long term.

“When people receive those treatments within the system, their likelihood of recidivism certainly goes down,” he said. “None of this is novel or new. Are you going to take our actions and are you going to utilize some of it?”Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service.  Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org. 

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.  Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Nomin Ujiyediin
Nomin is a Kansas News Service reporting fellow at KCUR.