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A new prison is needed, not wanted

Ellis County Jail. Courtesy photo

By JONATHAN ZWEYGARDT
Hays Mail

The number of people held in Kansas jails has been declining recently, but Ellis County Sheriff Scott Braun said it may just be the “calm before the storm.”

Braun spoke with the Ellis County Commission Tuesday and gave a brief preview of the jail evaluation by Justice Planners. The commission approved the evaluation contract last year.

Justice Planners were unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting because of travel disruptions caused by Hurricane Beryl. They now plan to present their 30-plus-page assessment on Aug. 13.

The Ellis County Jail has an estimated capacity of 72, and the average daily population for the past two and a half years has been more than 60 inmates.

Ellis County Administrator Darin Myers told the commission the Justice Department is recommending construction of a new facility for the county that would need 95 beds by next year.

“The amount of space available, compared to the amount of money that would be needed to add beds, would not even be enough to meet the minimum number of beds required,” Myers said. “That is why they are recommending that no money be invested in the current facility because it will not pay for itself.”

Justice planners recommended housing the inmates outside the county and setting aside money to build a new facility, Braun said.

He also warned commissioners not to become accustomed to the fact that the prison population remains at its current level of around 55 per cent.

The current numbers are “unheard of, I don’t know what’s going on,” Braun said.

“There has to be a trend across the state because Sedgwick County is also seeing low numbers. Ford County is seeing low numbers,” Braun said. “But I think this is the calm before the storm and we’ll see our numbers go back up.”

Ellis County will have a new district attorney as a result of the fall election, as current prosecutor Robert Anderson has decided not to seek re-election. There will also be a new judge in the 23rd Judicial District. Chief Judge Glenn Braun is also not seeking re-election.

Sheriff Braun said with two new people in these positions, there is no way to predict how it will impact the prison population.

“I talked to one of the judges and he said he would try to do everything he could to keep people out of prison or find a way to do it, but it’s a hard, hard thing to do,” Braun said. He said he has not spoken to the new judge.

But Braun spoke with Deputy District Attorney Aaron Cunningham, the only candidate who filed to run for district attorney. Unless he can mount a successful campaign against him, he will take over as chief district attorney in January.

“I think he will; how do I say it? He will be a little tougher,” Braun said. “So we may have an increased number of people who he feels need to be in prison, wrongly or wrongly. That’s just his opinion.”

Braun said a previous study, conducted in 2013, recommended a facility with a minimum of 97 beds and recommended a facility approaching 125 beds.

“I think the commissioners know what we need to do, and we just need to figure out how to do it, how to manage in the meantime and how to work through it strategically,” Braun said. “It probably won’t get done in my time. Maybe it will, I don’t know. At some point, it’s going to have to be addressed.”

Braun said there is no “quick fix” for the situation and anticipates it will take several meetings to develop a plan.

He added that part of the discussion needed to be how to address prisoners’ mental health issues.

Braun estimated that about 15% of prisoners suffer from serious mental health problems, and more than half of those struggle with some mental health problems but are able to control them.

“We have some really sick people there, and unfortunately there’s nowhere to send them,” Braun said. “We could send them to Larned for X number of days, but they ended up back at our facility.”

He suggested the county talk to High Plains Mental Health about how to address these issues, including the possibility of connecting a mental health facility to the jail that could house inmates and still provide them with the treatment they need.

Justice Planners’ assessment of the prison was based on a 25-year projection into the future.

Braun said there is a lot of uncertainty and things that could change.

One is the potential growth of the town of Hays due to improved water access thanks to the R-9 Ranch project.

“I’m talking about millions of dollars. I know the public, if they’re listening right now, is probably saying the sheriff wants a new jail, but that’s not true. We need a jail. I don’t want one. We need one, and it’s not for me. It’s for the public, so we can keep them safe,” Braun said.