A Kansas corrections official unveiled a plan Wednesday for a two-stage expansion at the state's maximum security prison near El Dorado that would enable the state to keep up with its burgeoning prison population.
The two Department of Corrections projects would add space for 640 inmates at the prison, with construction costs totaling nearly $38 million, Michael Gaito, the department's director of capital improvements, told lawmakers, who would have to approve either expansion project. He said the department expects to seek authorization for the first project in 2015.
Gaito discussed the projects during a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on State Building Construction, which reviews building projects proposed by state agencies. Last month, the Kansas Sentencing Commission issued new projections that show the state will run out of prison space before July 2017 and have 5.5 percent more inmates than its capacity of about 9,600 by July 2019.
"Based on the current projections, these are the current requirements," Gaito said after his presentation. "If the projections change, then our needs and what we'll submit will change."
The El Dorado prison has space for 1,249 male inmates, and the first project, to be completed by July 2016, would add two new housing units with space for 512 inmates. The cost of the project would be almost $25 million.
The second project, to be completed by July 2019 at a cost of nearly $13 million, could add a new unit for mentally ill and difficult-to-manage inmates, with space for 128.
Kansas built the prison outside El Dorado after overcrowding in the 1970s and 1980s led to federal court orders to release inmates early. It opened in 1991, and the Department of Corrections designed it so that it could be expanded.
As of this week, the state's inmate population was slightly above it's the prison system's capacity. Concerns about such growth led legislators to enact policies to prevent inmates who've been released on probation from returning to prison for technical violations of their probation terms. Those policies took effect in July and are expected to drop the inmate population below the corrections system's capacity until July 2016.
But after that, the Sentencing Commission expects the prison population to rise again until it surpasses 10,000 before July 2019.
"We have made our laws tougher, and so that means more bed space," said Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the joint committee.
Brunk said the need for additional space will raise questions about whether the state should confine some of its lower-security inmates in private prisons.
But Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and a member of the joint committee, said it also should spur legislators to re-examine sentencing laws.
"We have driven the population explosion in our prisons by some of the laws that we've passed, and it may be time to review some of those," she said.