Winfield prison expansion part of reform effort

Triplett Hall, on the Winfield Veterans Home campus, is one of two unused buildings that could become a nursing home and mental health facility to the Winfield Correctional Facility.

Cody Carter, who leads a non-denominational Christian ministry at Lansing Correctional Facility, sees first-hand what happens as inmates age behind bars.

"I do have guys in my program that have like a colostomy bag or are wheelchair bound or have seizure problems – a number of issues that make it really tough to navigate," Carter told The Wichita Eagle.

It's a scene likely to become increasingly common as Kansas prepares for a rising tide of hundreds of aging inmates who will require expensive, specialized care as they approach the end of their lives.

Gov. Laura Kelly plans to retrofit an unused building near a prison in Winfield, south of Wichita, for a growing population of elderly inmates. The unit would accommodate those struggling with some of the most difficult challenges associated with aging, including dementia.

Aging prisoners are a critical challenge for a system in chronic crisis from overcrowding and staff shortages. To stabilize and improve prisons, officials are pursuing almost contradictory goals.

A sweeping criminal justice overhaul to substantially cut the prison population could take years, prompting Kansas to take interim steps to improve the system as a bigger debate over reform plays out.

While the long term goal remains a smaller population, the state plans to spend heavily in the short term: on new space to reduce overcrowding, expensive services to house elderly inmates and rehabilitation for those with substance abuse issues.

The expansion for older inmates is part of a larger proposal by Kelly to add space for hundreds of additional inmates at a time when the state's prisons are stretched to their limit. 

The request, outlined in her budget, would cost more than $13.5 million over two years and require more than 160 additional staff. Lawmakers will need to authorize funding for the project to move forward.

Winfield details

Under Kelly's plan, two vacant buildings near Winfield Correctional Facility will be repurposed for a prison environment. The Kansas Veterans' Home has used the buildings, Tripplet and Funston, in the past but they currently sit empty.

Funston, originally built as a skilled-nursing facility, will provide acute medical care for aging inmates, according to Rebecca White, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. 

Tripplet will house general population inmates but will be geared toward the aging as well as those requiring substance abuse help.

The renovation will add 241 beds to the state's capacity at a cost over two years of $9.7 million. The expansion will require about 120 new employees and cost $8.3 million a year to operate, White said in an emailed response to questions.

Although the state's largest prisons – in Lansing and El Dorado – have struggled to attract and retain employees, White said the agency is confident it can hire the workers necessary.

"The Winfield Correctional Facility has historically been very successful with recruitment and retention," White wrote, adding that as of Jan. 27, every security position at the prison was filled.

The renovations of the Winfield buildings represent only half of Kelly’s proposed expansion of prison space. The governor also wants to overhaul a closed unit at Lansing to add 200 beds at a cost of $3.5 million. About 43 additional workers would be needed.

The Lansing unit would be dedicated to providing substance abuse treatment. Together with Winfield, the expansion would provide hundreds of additional beds focused on treating inmates for problems with drugs and alcohol.

Stressed prisons

Kansas prisons have been under stress for years, with the largest facilities struggling from staffing shortages that have prompted pay raises for frontline workers. 

Episodes of violence and unrest have revealed the stress facing the system as it operates at or above capacity. Last year, the state paid private prison operator CoreCivic to begin housing 120 inmates in Arizona.

Kelly's plan represents an acknowledgment by the Democratic governor that Kansas needs more prison space, at least in the short term. The inmate population of roughly 10,000 is expected to grow by more than 1,000 within five or six years, according to state projections.

The governor's plan is likely to fuel conversations surrounding criminal justice reform in Kansas. Kelly is a vocal proponent of sentencing changes that would help keep non-violent drug offenders out of prison and some lawmakers appear eager to debate the issue.

Her administration hopes the expansion, which will also include space for inmates with substance abuse issues, may ultimately help keep people out of prison by reducing recidivism.

"By expanding and innovating our capacity for substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment, we can bend the curve on our prison population long-term, improve public safety and strengthen Kansas communities," Kelly said in her State of the State address.

As for older inmates, the numbers tell the story of the looming need for intense care. Nearly 1,500 inmates are older than 50, accounting for about 20 percent of the total population. More than 300 are over 65.

"Dementia, Alzheimers, cognitive care issues, and then just that aging process where they're not ambulatory — they really struggle," Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda told lawmakers at a briefing this month. "And when they're out in a general population bed, they're more at risk."

Over the years, lawmakers have raised penalties for some crimes, especially sex offenses, leading to "stacking" within the prison system, said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican who chairs the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

"So now you end up with more that are there longer," Jennings said. "And they reach an age where they, like people in the free world, have health challenges."

Old age exacts its emotional and physical toll on everyone. Growing old in prison only compounds those challenges.

Carter, the director of Relentless Prison Ministry, said for many older inmates, most if not all of their family has cut them off, leaving them without visits and outside support.

"There's a significant lack of privacy in prison, but it can feel very detached from meaningful relationships sometimes and so there can be a strong sense of hopelessness or loneliness that happens, particularly with the older guys," Carter said.

Carter said he spent about two hours during a recent morning just listening to an older prisoner.

"He doesn't have very many people that will sit and talk to him and listen to him," Carter said. "That is something that a lot of them are starved for, is sort of meaningful connection."

Kansas law allows the secretary of corrections to release inmates if they have a terminal medical condition and will likely die within 30 days. The state has released only one inmate under those conditions since 2013.

On Feb. 3, lawmakers held a hearing on a bill that would extend the time-frame to 90 days.

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(1) comment

Smurf

So the state wants to put criminals in the buildings that directly connect to the veterans home? How many ways can this go wrong? How about we fix the veterans home then worry about criminals. The veterans home has tons of opening for employment then are the same people you will need to run this prison. Nurse's, CNA, CMA you will have a hard time getting people to work in that area for security reasons. The prisoners at the facility are not all non violent offenders. There are rapist and murderers there and more will be brought in to this place that was to be a place of honor for our veterans. What makes the state think they can run a high risk nursing home for criminals when it can't take care of our veterans? Don't believe me ask around .

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