The new secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections said Wednesday questionable transfer of inmates among prison facilities and crowded living conditions fueled riots in 2017 and 2018, and he pointed to a design flaw at the private prison under construction at Lansing.
He expressed concern about high officer turnover and closing of prison security posts.
Roger Werholtz, hired by Gov. Laura Kelly to lead the state's prisons, was lauded by Republican and Democratic legislators for willingness to speak publicly in multiple hearings about financial, personnel and security challenges in the corrections system.
“There are a number of possible solutions to consider," Werholtz said. "None of which are easy or quick and all of which are expensive.”
Several members of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee said they had posed tough questions to prison officials in the Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer administrations but received responses lacking in transparency.
"We’ve heard a lot of things," said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka. "The gloves came off the other day. It was refreshing to hear what’s actually going on, but also terrifying."
Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican, said information provided to legislators by former corrections officials didn't mesh with comments made to him by rank-and-file employees of the state prisons.
Compelling evidence of problems was illustrated by Werholtz in a 24-page report documenting property damage during riots at El Dorado, Norton and Larned prisons. There were photographs of corrections officers bloody and bruised from violent encounters at Hutchinson, Ellsworth, Larned and El Dorado. In a 57-page document, the secretary provided detailed summaries of budget, staff and program issues.
"I’m truly disgusted that over the last two years what we did not hear from the previous secretary," Delperdang said. "I personally have asked some of these questions over and over and over again. You just get a rosy picture of how it’s all working out. That’s not the case."
Werholtz, who was Kansas corrections secretary before Brownback entering office in 2011, said he was on record as opposing private prisons. He said companies operating prisons made money by increasing incarceration rates, which could be accomplished by deep-pocket lobbyists working to lengthen sentences.
He had separate concerns about the 20-year lease-purchase contract with Corecivic signed by Brownback to replace Lansing Correctional Facility. He said design of the new prison was problematic because it didn't mirror construction of cell houses at El Dorado Correctional Facility, with a central post offering staff a view of each cell door. The new Lansing prison has cell blocks running in a straight line.
"I’m not thrilled with the design of the facility," Werholtz said. "From a single officer’s station, which is located at the end of that cell housing, you can’t see every cell door."
Werholtz said the state ran out of capacity in the 9,973-bed system while enduring high staff turnover and had systematically collapsed security posts inside prisons.
He said an initial analysis indicated Department of Corrections officials' decisions to briskly transfer inmates to other prisons and to concentrate young men proved volatile amid riots in 2017 and 2018.
"They were moved without a lot of consultation with the wardens and some of the placements appear to have been contrary to best practices," he said. "Older, more experienced inmates can actually have a more positive or calming influence on people that are young, high energy."
Rep. John Wheeler, a Garden City Republican on the House committee, said harm to corrections officers and property damaged the prison system.
“I am personally friends with several people who work in corrections as guards and have quit,” Wheeler said.
Werholtz said the previous administration's practice of placing two inmates into a single cell likely contributed to unrest. Double-bunking higher security inmates isn't a good practice, he said.
"I don’t want to lay everything that happened at the facilities at the feet of double bunking. I personally felt it was a bad decision," Werholtz said.
Werholtz said the department's goal was to reconfigure the prison population, rebuild the employee base and solidify officer training. The new governor recommended a $3 million increase in spending for personnel, but hiring in eastern Kansas is easier than in western portions of the state, and 50 percent of corrections officers in Kansas have less than two years of experience.
The rising cost of health insurance is an issue because some officers who earned a pay raise ended up with a net reduction in compensation, Werholtz said.
He said treatment programs offered in Kansas prisons needed to expand because a "large number of people who need interventions" don't have access to help.
Werholtz also said the state should work on legislation to reduce the length of prison sentences in Kansas. It could be a politically risky endeavor, he said, because inevitably someone released early will hurt someone. The backlash on politicians can be terrible, he said.