Kansas and Washington Face Overcrowding

TOPEKA, Kan. — States throughout the U.S. are experiencing record high incarceration rates — including Kansas. The state’s Department of Corrections is addressing the issue and working on predicting where more problems could lie in the future.

There are currently 8,635 inmates housed in Kansas and the number continues to grow. The average men’s jail exceeds capacity by over 250 inmates and women’s facilities are reaching capacity quickly.

Kansas has taken a “tough on crime” approach and many wonder if the state should reconsider its stance before the numbers get even higher.

Kansas has had 99 changes to its sentencing structure since 2005. For some crimes, including sex crimes, the sentences have increased, leaving many inmates behind bars for a longer time. Now the state has to decide what to do with the excess of inmates and how to handle the overcrowding issue in the state’s correctional facilities.

Housing the inmates is another problem, which is currently costly and continues to climb in expenses. For the first half of 2012 alone, Kansas is likely to spend about $1.5 million to house state prisoners, according to Ray Roberts, Kansas Corrections Secretary. Roberts plans to ask the state for additional funding next year — about $2.5 million for additional correctional personnel. In addition Roberts is seeking $1.7 million to help with the overcrowding issue by dedicating a new facility for elderly inmates.

Inmates entering the state correctional system also run the risk of illness and/or mental illness. The cost to provide screenings and health care to inmates also does not come cheap. In the Kansas system today about 27 percent of the inmates suffer from some form of mental illness.

Elderly inmates typically need the most medical attention and to address those needs the state is planning to reopen Labette correctional facility to help house elderly inmates, according to a member of the sentencing commission, Pat Colloton. The facility will be designed for 200 inmates and is set to open in 2012, according to Colloton.

Solutions to Overcrowding
Recent data shows that in 10 years the number of inmates in men’s prisons will rise to 2,000 over capacity.

State officials know that the problem won’t be solved by itself and they are thinking of ways to decrease the population to solve the problems now and looking into the future.

Colloton added that the state should consider allowing some inmates out early in order to decrease prison populations.

Colloton is optimistic of other plans for the state, including the Governor’s decision to restore funding for drug abuse treatment within correctional facilities as well as provide additional funding for the reopening of Labette correctional facility and money for Behavioral Modification Therapy for inmates to focus on change and reducing the recidivism rate.

Not everyone is in favor of early release for convicted felons. Some believe that by allowing certain inmates early release it goes back on the state’s sentencing rulings. Those opposed to early release think the answer might be in building more prisons.

Kansas isn’t the only state dealing with an increased prison population. In Washington state, Shelton Prison is experiencing record high inmate populations. Each week about 150 inmates come through the Washington Corrections Center for processing before being assigned to a state prison — Shelton is the first stop for all male inmates, except those on death row.

The closures of three prisons in the area have also caused an explosive increase in the prison population at Shelton, according to the state Department of Corrections. The prison is impacted so much that inmates are squeezed into tight living quarters, which increases the chances for violence to occur.

“Any time that we have to put folks on the floor there is potential for an increase in violence. We can’t move anybody where there’s no space,” said Dan White, associate superintendent at Shelton prison.

Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said the state is expected about 160 additional prison beds by summer 2012.

Warner said that one possibility includes reopening a facility that has been closed for the past three years. The 126-year-old Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla could be a solution for the state — however, the facility hasn’t been running in years and there would have to be extensive maintenance work. If reinstated, the facility would provide the state with 140 new beds.

Other facilities in the state are also being looked at to house adult inmates. Talks about renovating the Maple Lane School — a recently closed Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration lockup in Thurston County could provide additional cells for inmates said DOC spokesman Chad Lewis.

Washington will have to decide how to respond in the immediate future, and also how to deal with the long-term situation plaguing the state. Washington currently has 16,000 inmates in the state system — and is expected to have 900 more by 2016, a 5.6 percent increase for the system. In addition to the lack of beds, if the state starts reopening closed facilities, the costs will continue to rise.

When the Washington Corrections Center opened it was designed to hold 720 inmates. It now has an average daily population of 1,700 inmates, according to White.

“Our vacancy light is always illuminated and the buses keep coming in every day,” said White.