New Kansas prisons chief says 'double-bunking' led to riots; lawmakers in 'shock' after briefings

Prison bars
Posted at 11:15 AM, Jan 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-31 12:15:01-05

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' new prisons chief is suggesting to legislators that the state corrections system is in crisis, and his briefings are leading lawmakers in both parties to conclude that they haven't previously had a full picture of inmate riots and other problems.

Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz also said Wednesday that an increased use of "double-bunking," or housing two inmates to a cell, was a factor in riots in 2017 and 2018. Department of Corrections officials had previously dismissed a potential link.

Werholtz, who served as corrections secretary from December 2002 through 2010, returned to the job earlier this month when Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took office. Under Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, the department acknowledged staffing problems but then-Secretary Joe Norwood said serious disturbances were unconnected and the inmate population generally was under control.

The new interim secretary took questions Wednesday from the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, two days after a grim briefing of the problems facing the department. Werholtz criticized double-bunking and later said that practice and overly aggressive transfers of inmates among prisons helped fuel riots at several prisons in 2017 and 2018.

And while the department under Norwood avoided the term, Werholtz did not shrink from using "riots" to describe the disturbances. The department this week provided legislators with photos of damaged prison buildings from riots in El Dorado in June 2017 and July 2018, Norton in September 2017 and Larned in November 2018 .

Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican, said he was "truly disgusted" by "what we did not hear" previously. House committee Chairman Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican, said its members felt "shock" after Werholtz's briefings.

"I think we're all thankful that we now have a much clearer picture of what's really going on," Jennings said later. "The whole story wasn't told."

Kelly's proposed budget for the budget year that begins in July includes an additional $3 million to help prisons fill vacant positions. But the department is still expecting to keep 9 percent of its 3,500 positions open. The department reported that the overtime it paid ballooned from $1.7 million during its 2013 budget year to $8.2 million five years later.

"It had become common practice to do what we called collapsing posts," Werholtz said Wednesday, relaying what he and other officials heard from staff. "It's my perception at this point that all of the facilities have been collapsing a lot of posts for a long time."

Werholtz said transfers of inmates had created concentrations of young, male offenders in some locations to the point where "we may have created a volatile mix unintentionally." The department had previously acknowledged that some inmates were upset with being moved.

The department will be looking at mixing more of the younger inmates with older ones, Werholtz said, but must consider how quickly it can make such transfers.

As for double-bunking, Werholtz said increasing the concentration of inmates in a prison can create management problems. The department previously had said the practice was not a problem and the most cost-effective way to house a growing inmate population.

Werholtz said the prison system now has less flexibility to reverse double-bunking because the inmate population has continued to grow. As of Tuesday, the department had 10,071 inmates in its custody — 100 more than the system's housing capacity, even with double-bunking.

"It was refreshing to hear what was actually going on — but also actually terrifying," said Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat.