By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers have killed a proposal to expand the sales base for Kansas Correctional Industries, in favor of bringing more private companies in to work with inmates.
The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee ended consideration of a bill Thursday that would have allowed for KCI to expand its sales base to local governments and the private sector. The committee instead wants the state Department of Corrections to expand an existing program that brings in private companies to provide jobs to inmates. The KCI expansion was supported by the Corrections Department and had been recommended in the efficiency study commissioned by the state Legislature, but had opposition in the business community with regards to sales to private companies.
“We appreciate being able to bring up this proposal,” Corrections Department spokesman Adam Pfannenstiel told The Celock Report of the proposal’s defeat. “At this point we don’t have any further response.”
The A&M report had suggested that KCI be expanded to handle sales to local governments across the state, along with being able to sell to businesses and individuals within the state. The proposal came along with another unsuccessful push this week for inmates at Ellsworth Correctional Facility to sell manufactured homes made at the prison on the private market. The Ellsworth proposal – which was pushed by Ellsworth economic development officials as a way to address housing issues in the region – had received opposition from the Kansas Manufactured Housing Association.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce was opposed to expanding KCI sales outside of state government. Chamber vice president for government affairs Eric Stafford told The Celock Report that the Chamber is concerned about the state competing with the private sector. He noted though that Chamber is open to issues with relation to private companies working with inmates and other job training programs.
KCI operates training and job programs for inmates through both products manufactured by inmates and working with private companies. The second program has private companies using inmate labor for production and pays a prevailing wage to inmates. Last year KCI brought in slightly over $7.1 million in revenue, with $5 million of that going back to the state to cover room and board for inmates.
KCI has 1264 inmates involved, according to the A&M report, with 324 involved in prison based industries operated by the state and 940 working with private sector companies involved in KCI. Of the inmates working with private companies, 577 are based in prisons and 363 are not based in prisons.
The A&M report said that KCI officials reported that increasing KCI capacity to 85% and expanding the sales to non-state agencies could bring the state $1.5 million annually in additional revenue.
Pfannenstiel said the state has been looking to expand the private sector involvement with KCI. He described the program – which includes work on agricultural equipment, clothing and other goods – as a “win win” for the state. He noted that those who work in KCI are able to gain job skills for outside of prison and are less likely to return.
He also noted that the wages made by inmates can help offset the costs of housing them in prison, along with being used to cover fines, victim compensation and child support the inmates have.
“Those inmates are learning a necessary skill that is marketable when they get out and that helps reduce recidivism,” Pfannenstiel said. “They are paid a prevailing wage and part of that comes back from room and board and other costs.”
Other states around the country have expanded prison industry programs to working with private sector companies.
At the same time over the discussion on the KCI expansion, lawmakers earlier this week heard a bill that would have expanded the manufactured home sales from Ellsworth. Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Assaria), who represents Ellsworth, told The Celock Report that he and other leaders in Ellsworth County wanted to see an expansion that would provide the homes within the county and into neighboring Russell and Lincoln Counties. The Ellsworth bill was tabled by the committee on Thursday, likely killing it.
Johnson said that an affordable housing shortage in the counties has led leaders to towards the housing constructed at the prison. He noted that much of the housing being constructed on the private market has been priced in the $100,000 or higher range and the goal was to expand options.
“I think it is useful where these programs can be complementary to business and not taking business away from existing folks,” he said.
Lawmakers had considered a compromise earlier this week that would have limited Ellsworth to selling between two to three homes a year on the open market and only within a 50 mile radius of the prison. On Monday, Martha Smith, the executive director of the Kansas Manufactured Housing Association, told the committee that she was concerned that a compromise could lead to more compromises down the road that would not help her industry, a committee member told The Celock Report. Smith did not return multiple messages left for comment.
House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), a Commerce Committee member, told The Celock Report that he is opposed to the state government competing with small business. At the same time he said he is open to seeing the expansion of the program to have private sector companies work with inmates, noting that the skills from the program will have a long-term impact.
“I see the value in giving those who are serving time to gain a skill set they can use outside of prison,” Claeys said.