Kansas to air-condition next prison as heat becomes concern

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas corrections officials expect the next prison built by the state to be fully air-conditioned, including the cells for inmates, viewing it both as a way to lessen problems with inmates and to combat high employee turnover.

Some lawmakers who don’t want to coddle criminals see a need to make corrections officers less miserable in the summer heat. When Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood matter-of-factly told a legislative committee earlier this month that plans for a new prison included it, its members let the statement pass without comment, though questions may come later.

The state’s plans to fully air-condition the new prison planned for Lansing in the Kansas City area also come as a federal judge is forcing Texas to move hundreds of inmates who are sensitive to the heat to cooler areas. The American Civil Liberties Union has prevailed in lawsuits on prisoners’ behalf in Arizona, Mississippi and Wisconsin since 2004.

In Kansas, the union representing corrections officers considers the lack of air conditioning in parts of the state’s maximum-security prison in El Dorado, east of Wichita, a contributing factor to inmate unrest there that included three reported disturbances in May and June. Corrections officials said air conditioning is becoming more necessary because of inmates’ medical needs.

“This is not an issue of comfort or luxury,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “You should no more build a prison without climate control than you should a prison without fire escapes.”

In St. Louis, the city paid $75,000 in late July to bring in temporary air conditioners to its medium-security jail when temperatures topped 100 degrees (38 Celsius) and prompted protests outside the jail. Triple-digit temperatures are not unusual for the height of summer in Kansas, and the average monthly temperature approaches 80 (27 Celsius) at the end of May and stays there or higher through September.

The Kansas Department of Corrections plans to build a replacement prison in Lansing, where its oldest and largest lockup has buildings that date to the 1860s and no air conditioning. The department hopes to have a final construction contract in November for what could be a three-year, $155 million project.

The department has a 33 percent annual turnover rate among corrections officers because of low pay, which starts at $13.95 an hour. The rate at Lansing is 37 percent and at El Dorado, 46 percent.

Norwood told the legislative committee that in the summer, without air conditioning, Lansing becomes “extremely uncomfortable” for staff. He said with the new prison’s air conditioning, “the working conditions and living conditions will be much better.”

Not all legislators are on board. State Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and chairman of a House budget subcommittee on public safety, said he doesn’t remember being told of the plan for full air conditioning and would have objected on behalf of taxpayers who can’t afford it or other comforts.

“That would have been a topic that would have met with some push-back,” he said.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said she understands cooling prisons to make staff safer and more comfortable and inmates less prone to unrest. But she added that for inmates, “It doesn’t have to be on 70. It can be on 85.”

Court rulings in other states have mandated action when heat indexes get above 80 degrees (27 Celsius). Kansas corrections officials seek to keep temperatures in air-conditioned areas for inmates at 78 (26 Celsius).

Roughly 70 percent of Kansas inmates in state prisons are in buildings without air conditioning, including in Lansing and at the state’s second-oldest prison in Hutchinson. Five of the eight prisons are at least partially air-conditioned, including much of the one in El Dorado.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Cheryl Cadue said one concern is that many inmates “are taking heat-sensitive psychiatric medication.”

Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the new prison should come with air conditioning because, “This is the 21st century.” Census figures show that in 2016, 94 percent of all new single-family homes in the Midwest were built with air conditioning, compared with 40 percent in 1976.

He said that if legislators are inclined to see hot cell houses as part of the punishment for criminals, “Guess who else you’re punishing? It’s our correctional officers.”