- Associated Press - Thursday, April 13, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas hasn’t started moving hundreds of inmates from its oldest and largest prison and its warden was premature in saying so in a memo Thursday to employees, a state Department of Corrections spokesman said.

The department hopes to sign a final contract this fall with a private company to build a new prison in Lansing to replace the existing one, and it is seeking proposals for firms to lease the prison to the cash-strapped state for up to 40 years. Warden Sam Cline told employees in his memo that the project is “a GO” and “now moving forward as predicted.”

“Relocation of approximately 600 inmates from the Medium Unit is underway with plans to spread this number across the state,” the memo said referring to the medium-security part of the prison.

The Associated Press obtained the memo from the largest union for state employees. Department of Corrections spokesman Todd Fertig said it accurately represents what would happen once the agency hires a company to build the prison, which could be a $155 million project.

But Fertig said the state is doing only regular daily transfers of inmates among prisons. He said it was a miscommunication for Cline to suggest that a mass movement of prisoners is occurring.

“That’s not where we are in the process,” Fertig said.

Daily department counts available online show the inmate population in Lansing grew slightly from the beginning of the year to early February, hitting 2,381 on Feb. 9, then declined. As of Wednesday, the population was 2,314, about 3 percent less. The prison’s capacity is 2,405.

Parts of the prison date to the 1860s, and corrections officials believe a new lockup would be safer, easier to maintain and could operate more efficiently, with 43 percent fewer workers. The plan is to mothball the oldest and most historic parts of the current prison and to demolish the rest.

The department is leaving open the possibility of financing the project with bonds but it has asked for proposals for agreements under which a company would own the prison and lease it to the state, allowing Kansas to buy the institution over 20, 30 or 40 years.

Some legislators see the project as a step toward privatizing the prison system, and a few worry that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration is rushing it. Lawmakers have not yet signed off; they would have to approve the demolition of existing buildings and authorize bonds if such debt was used to finance construction.

State Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she has heard for weeks that the state is moving prisoners out of Lansing. She said a group of lawmakers plan to visit the prison April 26 and some will pursue legislation to stall the project until legislators can review it more thoroughly.

“They have made it clear that they’re going to do it when they want to do it and how they want to do it and keep the Legislature out of the way,” Kelly said.

Other lawmakers said they haven’t heard that inmates are being moved to prepare for the project. Republican Rep. J.R. Claeys, of Salina, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee on public safety, has questioned whether the department has considered all options but said it needs a safer and more efficient prison.

“They can empty Lansing for all I care,” Claeys said. “But they have to figure out where to put people once they empty it.”


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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