Roger Werholtz, the new boss at the Kansas Department of Corrections, had tough news for legislators last week: The state’s prison system is in dire straits, and it will take time and money to fix the problems.
His message was welcomed, simply because past corrections leadership had often obfuscated or dissembled. We welcome the clarity he provided. But it’s now up to these same legislators to make sure that Kansas prisons are safe for inmates and workers, as well as effective at rehabilitation and deterrence.
That’s a tall order in a state where, too often, hastily assembled tax plans and haphazard spending reductions were par for the course. In other words, lawmakers have to be willing to pay the price to fix the problem.
“There are a number of possible solutions to consider,” Werholtz said, according to Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Carpenter. “None of which are easy or quick and all of which are expensive.”
The problems he outlined were many. Ill-considered prison transfers. The design of a privately run prison that would make it impossible for guards at their stations to see every inmate’s doors. Double-bunking, the practice of cramming two inmates into a cell. Low pay for guards, who in some cases see any wage increase eaten up by health care costs.
The result? The state endured destructive prison riots in 2017 and 2018.
That’s unacceptable. The fixes, though will take time and concentration. On one hand, more resources need to go into the corrections system, and contracts with private providers should be examined. As Werholtz noted, companies running private prisons have perverse incentives to keep people incarcerated.
But that will only be a temporary fix if we don’t ultimately reduce the number of people in prison and the amount of time they spend there. Justice system and sentencing reform should be a priority, as the secretary suggested. It does carry political risk, but after watching such a bill pass on the federal level, it shouldn’t be impossible to imagine reforms passing in Kansas. Politicians on both sides of the aisle support such measures, and they would reduce the burden on corrections while simultaneously boosting the economy.
Kansas has been in the wringer. The last administration saw challenge upon challenge, largely the result of tax policy choices. As agencies rebuild under the Kelly administration, it can become easy for legislators to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of work ahead.
But Werholtz’s clear eye and plainspoken attitude is a good start.