By John Celock
A Kansas prison warden’s email that a massive prison reconstruction project is a “go” is raising eyebrows among state legislators who are still debating how and if the project should proceed.
A Thursday morning email from Sam Cline, the warden of the Lansing Correctional Facility, to staffers at the prison described a proposed reconstruction of the prison as a “go” and said that relocating impacted prisoners is underway. Cline’s email surprised state lawmakers who are debating the proposal, including funding, and have discussed other alternatives to a reconstruction of the Lansing facility. A final decision from lawmakers is not expected to come until May at the earliest.
“Last Friday the Dept. of Administration put out the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for what is now officially to be known as the Lansing Reconstruction project. This announcement goes on the site detailing all the current state contracts and is expected to garner significant interest nationwide,” Cline wrote in the email. “KDOC and the Dept. of Purchasing will host a meeting here at Lansing on April 19th with companies who respond to this RFQ and who meet the credentials required. We will tour the Medium Unit and also have a meeting for Q/A with involved state officials. I want to make it clear to all of you that the project is now moving forward as predicted by Secretary Norwood. The Lansing Reconstruction project is a ‘GO’.”
Cline also wrote “relocation of 600 inmates from the Medium Unit is underway” with some moving to other parts of Lansing and the rest to other prisons statewide. Cline noted that Tower 14 at the prison would also be demolished as part of the project. Cline copied the email to state Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood, Deputy Corrections Secretary Johnnie Goddard and Margie Phelps, the reentry services director for the Corrections Department. The email appears to be an internal newsletter to staffers on prison facility news.
Lawmakers are angered by the email and Cline’s description of the project as a “go” and that prisoners are being moved.
“I am hoping that this is one individual jumping the gun. I am hoping it is not the policy of the Department of Corrections to mislead legislators and turn around and do the opposite of what they have committed to as far as the process is concerned,” House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report. “We received assurances from the secretary of corrections, directly from his mouth, that the legislature would be involved in the process before anything was done.”
Senate Ways and Means Committee Ranking Minority Member Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) said that she is not surprised by the Executive Branch wanting to work around the Legislature, but she is surprised by the speed that the Lansing project is moving. She noted that Cline referenced an April 19 meeting for those who qualify for the project, when she said that lawmakers were told a different timeline.
“This administration has a track record of circumventing the Legislature when it is convenient. That part is not shocking,” Kelly said. “That they are moving forward quickly is a bit shocking. They sent out the RFP and the RFQ was due in May, May 19th in fact, and now we are a month earlier and they are having a meeting then.”
Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) proposal to demolish part of Lansing and have a private company reconstruct it and lease it back to the state, with some state bonding, has been a hotly debated topic in this year’s legislative session. Hearings have been held by multiple legislative committees with more planned. A budget proposal approved by the House Appropriations Committee with language authorizing the Brownback plan is pending before the state House of Representatives for when lawmakers return to Topeka on May 1. A final state budget is likely to be approved at some point in May and contain language regarding what the state can do with Lansing.
Lawmakers questioned why the Brownback Administration could not wait, with Kelly and Claeys expressing frustration with the governor and his staffers.
“To have the executive branch go rogue and spend taxpayer dollars without the appropriations process taking place, it’s getting ridiculous,” Claeys said. “After the past couple of years we’ve come to expect them to do this when we’re not in session, now for them to do it as we approach May, maybe they’ve gotten that flagrant in their power grab.”
Corrections Department spokesman Todd Fertig told The Celock Report that “no plans are set” since the RFP has gone out for the project. He said that no inmates are currently being moved other than for “normal population management.” Fertig said that “no plans are set” for Lansing.
According to a timeline for the Lansing project released by Fertig, the RFQs are due on May 12 with the RFPs will be due to the state on July 21. The timeline has set Aug. 18 as the day for the awarding of the contract, with the contract being finalized by the end of September.
Fertig did not respond to questions regarding why Cline sent out the email saying that the project moving forward, if Norwood or others copied on the email have spoken to Cline or if Cline would be sending out a clarification email to his staff.
“In all future communications we will always try to represent where we stand in the process,” Fertig told The Celock Report.
While future internal communications will be addressed, lawmakers are concerned about the current ones. Claeys, a member of the Legislature’s Joint State Building Construction Committee, noted that the committee is planning to tour the prison on April 26. He said that the committee has held one hearing on the subject and has more meetings planned.
“The Legislature has a tour planned for April 26 and I am concerned there will not be a prison there when the bus pulls up,” he said.
Claeys, who held a hearing on the Lansing proposal in his committee, has also suggested other alternatives for Lansing, including expanding the prison in El Dorado, having communities statewide, including Lansing, bid to host a new prison or leasing a closed private prison in Colorado.
“We’ve heard one option and we certainly have others out there but we want to see more information before we commit to this,” Claeys said. “We are talking about $150 million in taxpayer money,”
The plans for Lansing call for the portions of the prison built in the 1980s to be torn down and to be replaced. The prison, which dates back to the 1860s, would have the historic portions remain standing. Lawmakers have said that the it would be cheaper to build a new prison on open land than to move forward with demolition and reconstruction.
Kelly wanted to know what the rush was by the Department of Corrections. She said that the Legislature could take its time and come up with a final plan. Kelly noted that she has issues with the proposal to bond for a prison reconstruction, noting that state cannot afford it.
“They are hell bent on getting this done. They are afraid if they delay it, the Legislature will find some way to thwart the project. They might be right about that,” Kelly told The Celock Report. “This is not the time to even consider floating bonds of that magnitude when our budget is in bad shape and we have gone deeply in debt. It is not the time to bring up the lease purchase proposal, primarily because that reeks of privatization and there is little interest in privatization in the Legislature.”
Kelly, who serves on the building construction committee, noted that lawmakers have stepped in before to stop construction proposals from Brownback. She was referencing provisos that lawmakers have put into the state budget in the past to block Brownback’s proposal to demolish the Docking State Office Building in Topeka and relocate the power plant underneath the building to a new location.
Kelly said that she thinks this is a pattern from Brownback.
“I think that if they want to do something, they try to go ahead and do it and only stop when we intervene legislatively,” Kelly said.
Joint State Building Construction Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac) told The Celock Report that Cline’s email “took me back a bit” noting that he had not been told that the state planned to move forward. He said that he was planning to have another hearing with Norwood on the Lansing issue since he and other committee members have outstanding questions. Lusker said that during the previous hearing, several senators on the panel had to leave early for another committee meeting and that they wanted the chance to question the corrections secretary.
Lusker said that the April 26 tour of the prison by his committee would give lawmakers more information but would also likely raise more questions that will necessitate another hearing before his panel could even develop recommendations.
Lusker said that among the concerns raised by his committee include if the state has money to pay for the reconstruction and if new bonds should be issued. He also said that the lease purchase plan has raised questions about the potential for privatizing the prison and that lawmakers want to know if the staffers would all be state employees or would they be from a private prison company. Norwood has said in the past that the state would continue to operate the prison under a lease purchase plan. Lusker said that the employee question is not only prison guards but also janitorial staff and others at Lansing.
“There is no reason to rush into anything with our current financial situation as a state. That causes more problems,” Lusker said. “We may have our questions answered pretty easily but we need to vet them out a bit.”
Lusker cautioned that the Department of Corrections may need to adjust their time frame since lawmakers will be working on their own time frame and not one dictated by the Executive Branch. He said that his committee is planning meetings for the summer and fall when the Legislature is not in session and Lansing would likely come up. He also noted that the full Legislature may not take up a final plan this year but wait for the building committee to finish its work.
“I don’t think one year or six or eight months makes a difference,” Lusker said. “You have to deal with the Legislature on a annual basis but our committee meets in the interim and appropriations and ways and means do too. I don’t think we need to roll through this.”
Sen. John Skubal (R-Overland Park), a building construction committee member, told The Celock Report that he wants to tour Lansing before the committee holds more hearings. He said that the tour would allow him to get more information and also potentially an idea of the estimate.
A facilities manager by profession, Skubal said that no construction project can move forward without a funding source and lawmakers are struggling to assemble a budget amid debates over the future of Brownback’s tax cuts, which have cut state revenues.
“They need a valid funding source before they build anything or get a shovel in the ground,” Skubal said. “If we are going to build something, it is something that we should afford.”
Rep. Brett Parker, a Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee member, said that he wants the Executive Branch to remember that the proviso authorizing the project still needs to go through several steps. He said that research needs to be done to make sure the project is in the state’s best interests.
“No one wants to jump the gun on it,” Parker said. “We want to make sure there is due diligence and oversight and the process works the way it is supposed to before anything moves ahead.”
House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) told The Celock Report that besides the issues relating to the legislative process and funding not going forward, he believes that the Corrections Department should be careful about employee communications. He said that the Lansing reconstruction could eliminate jobs at the facility and any communication about the project moving forward should take in account that staffers may be worried about losing their jobs.
Claeys said that he wanted to see the process respected. He also said that he hopes that the Brownback Administration keeps in mind that each branch of government has a distinct job.
“The Legislature was going through the process of exploring it, that’s what we are elected to do,” Claeys said. “Agencies do not just report to the governor. We are elected as an oversight body. We are given the purse strings for a reason.”
Kelly noted that she believes that there is no rush given the overall age of the prison complex in Lansing.
“I don’t know why they are in such a big rush, honestly,” she said. “Yeah the building is 150 years old. So it is 151 years old, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”