Kansas wants prisons for elderly inmates, drug issues



December 9, 2019 - 9:40 AM

A panel of criminal justice officials proposed three specialty prisons that are estimated to cost the state $35 million to renovate and build. NOMIN UJIYEDIIN / KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

TOPEKA, Kansas — One solution to Kansas prisons’ woes could come with a $35 million price tag for three new specialty prisons.

The state’s corrections system only treats half of its inmates who struggle with substance abuse. And as some people serve decades-long sentences, the system finds itself home to more elderly prisoners who need special care as they age.

Lawmakers created the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission to address those issues, as well as chronic overcrowding that resulted in hundreds of inmates being sent to a private prison in Arizona earlier this year.

In a report released this week, the panel of legislators, court employees, mental health experts, police and state officials signed off on a series of recommendations for the Kansas Legislature to consider when it convenes in January:

• Repurpose and renovate a prison building to serve as a 250-bed geriatric care facility. Estimated cost:  $9-10 million for renovations, $8.3 million per year for operations

• Re-purpose and renovate a prison building to house about 250 inmates for substance abuse treatment. Estimated cost: $3.5-4.5 million for renovations, $4.1 million for operations

• Build a new substance abuse treatment prison with about 240 beds. Estimated cost: $20.7 million just for construction

• Increase spending and capacity for the state’s overwhelmed mental health hospitals, a proposal already recommended by a state mental health task force for two years. Estimated cost: at least $86.8 million

• Reduce sentences, fines and fees for some minor crimes

• Allow state funding for people charged with drug crimes to undergo treatment instead of going to trial

The intent is to reduce the state’s prison population, which exceeds capacity and is projected to grow over the next decade.

Increased mental health and substance abuse treatment could cut the number of people who enter prison and who return once they’re released, said Kansas Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from central Kansas and vice-chair of the commission.

But convincing legislators to vote in favor of putting more money toward the issue could be a challenge, Owens said.

“There’s going to be some people that simply don’t want to spend money on it,” he said. “Because they may or may not believe that that is the correct answer to solve the problem.”

“The vast majority of inmates that enter the system are going to be coming out,” Owens said. “Why not help them become productive members of society?”