TOPEKA — Overcrowded and understaffed Kansas prisons relegate dozens of inmates to compact county jails each month, costing the state thousands of dollars per day.
Each month, approximately 80 of the state’s medium security offenders stay in county jails to help compensate for a bed shortage projected to worsen in the coming years despite the state’s plan to build a new prison. This month, 96 inmates have been placed in county jails, including four in a Johnson County work-release program.
The rest are there because of space constraints, said Liz Rice, director of classification for the Kansas Department of Corrections. Inmates complain they don’t have a choice in placement, and the facilities they are moved to offer tighter space and limited access to programs.
Rice said the state has contracted with facilities for approximately eight years to compensate for bed space issues, though the department doesn’t always need the beds to make up for shortages in its prisons. The corrections department has six active contracts for placing inmates and pays between $35 and $40 per night per inmate to house them.
Last month, the state paid $3,625 per night for the inmates it housed in five jails. It is unclear how long each inmate stays in a jail, but Rice said the department typically sends inmates who have a few months left in their sentences to spend time at the jail and return for any necessary programming before they are released.
Joseph Dickey, a Lansing inmate, was housed in the Jackson County Jail for more than three months last year and complained in a letter he had been removed from a high school equivalency degree program.
Rice said she would be “surprised” to learn that was the case because officials aim to get inmates into that program, but she said the department can’t guarantee access.
“Being in the jail in and of itself doesn’t eliminate someone from being able to go to a program,” Rice said. “If there’s a program slot available, we’ll move them back to the facility for it if they need it. Our goal is to get everyone who needs a program into it because the programs we have help reduce recidivism.”
Rice said the department considers release date, programming, physical and mental health status, an inmate’s crime and other factors when determining whether they could be placed in a county jail.
Dickey, convicted in 2016 of criminal use of explosives, and fellow inmates complained their living quarters were smaller in the Jackson County Jail than in state correctional facilities. Prices for goods and phone calls were higher, they claimed.
Overcrowding in the corrections department facilities, Dickey said, has caused “inhumane circumstances for hundreds of inmates, as well as very dangerous circumstances for DOC employees.”
Several of the state’s prisons were roiled by riots last summer, but corrections secretary Joe Norwood has claimed the overcrowding didn’t play a role.
Jackson County Sheriff Tim Morse said in an email jails are more restrictive than prisons and have less space and fewer programs, making a prison naturally preferable. But he said his staff provides a valuable service for the Kansas Department of Corrections and the jail staff strives to improve.
“Every complaint made by any inmate is investigated to see if there is any validity,” Morse said. “If there is, it is corrected and taken care of.”
Rice said inmates placed in county jails are expected to abide by those rules, though they are under the state’s authority. Even among corrections facilities, though, visitation rights and other rules can vary.
“The expectation is that our inmates get treated the same as their inmates do, so they shouldn’t have tighter restrictions on our inmates than they do on their own,” Rice said.