Politicians mark start of $532 million project to replace Leavenworth’s 126-year-old penitentiary

LEAVENWORTH — Heavy contruction machinery did the real work in advance of Monday’s groundbreaking for a $532 million Leavenworth federal prison and satellite prison camp to replace an antiquated structure constructed in 1897 that served as the nation’s first maximum-security prison.

After the speeches and applause, a gaggle of local, state and federal politicians and Federal Bureau of Prisons officials dutifully grabbed ceremonial shovels and gouged the frigid dirt at their feet to celebrate a step forward for public safety.

The imposing stone facade of the U.S. Penitentiary known as “Big Top” remained solid, but the federal prison’s electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems long ago surpassed operational limits. The new prison project — a top priority of local officials in Leavenworth for two decades — belatedly gained traction in Congress about five years ago based on an understanding something had to be done in response to the old prison’s excessive operational costs and lack of space for educational and fellowship programs designed to reduce recidivism.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make certain that the Leavenworth federal penitentiary is here for a generation to come,” said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Bureau of Prisons. “The 100-plus-year-old facility that we have here doesn’t really create the opportunities for professionals to work side-by-side with the inmates and try to find a way to change their lives.”

The senator said the future prison complex was the second-largest federal investment in Kansas history — trailing only the $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.

Federal Correctional Institution Leavenworth and the adjacent Federal Prison Camp would be constructed over a three-year period with anticipated completion in May 2026. The site was undeveloped ground owned by the Bureau of Prisons east of the existing penitentiary. When operational, inmates from the old prison would be transferred to the new facility. The old and new facilities would be rated for about 1,400 inmates and both would be staffed by about 340 correctional officers and staff.

No decision about future use of the old penitentiary complex has been made public, a prison official said.

Colette Peters, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said construction of the $532 million Leavenworth prison and prison camp by 2026 would better serve the societal interest of transforming inmates into “good neighbors when they come back to our communities.” (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The labor shortage

Jordan Toot, a case manager at the nearby U.S. Penitentiary and member of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 919, stood with more than a dozen other people at the prison entrance where dignitaries arrived for the groundbreaking. His handheld sign made the point: “Protect Those That Protect America.” Others in the picket line suggested “BOP Can’t Staff Existing Facility” and “My Grampy Matters.”

“We’re about 40 correctional officiers short right now — 190 is what they allow us to hire,” Toot said. “Someone has to be there for certain jobs. So, if someone is sick … somebody is going to have to stay an extra eight hours. They’re working a straight 16-hour day.”

Correctional officer Joe Gulley, who has been at the penitentiary for 22 years, said double-shifts were a grind. The Bureau of Prisons should modify the compensation structure to attract more applicants, eliminate subjective reasons for rejecting those that applied and work harder to retain veteran officers, he said. The current personnel system at the Leavenworth prison functioned by relying on voluntary or compelled overtime, he said.

“The reason why our staffing is so low is because it’s beneficial for the BOP,” Gulley said. “It’s more expensive to have the employees and pay the benefits than it is to pay the overtime to the employees you currently have.”

Toot and Gulley said sections of the Leavenworth prison were over capacity in terms of inmate population, which led to frequent lockdowns and a more hostile environment for employees and prisoners.

Toot said the existing penitentary was “falling apart” and the new prison complex would be better for prisoners and staff. It was unlikely, Toot said, to resolve the staffing shortage.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons employees in American Federation of Government Employees Local 919 picket outside the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth to bring attention to staff shortages. They stood at the entrance where dignitaries arrived for groundbreaking of a new federal prison. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The vision

Leavenworth Mayor Jermaine Wilson said prison facilities were part of the DNA of Leavenworth. He said there was never a doubt the city was the best location to build a replacement for the oldest facility within the Bureau of Prisons.

“Anything worth having is worth fighting for,” he said. “It takes time and it took a lot of perserverance and work to make this happen.”

Although $5.4 million in planning funding was provided in 2000, little progress was made over the next decade on securing meaningful appropriations for a new prison. In 2009, funding was allocated to undertake the years-long environmental review and public consultation process. In 2018, Moran became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which had jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons.

In fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021, Congress provided allocations of $175 million, $181 million and $176 million for prison construction in Leavenworth.

“For 150 years, this community has embraced this challenge,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas. “I want to make a special shout out to my correctional officers. I know the challenges. I’ve heard the challenges you have. Working 16-hour shifts … is unacceptable.”

Marshall said he was certain Colette Peters, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, had heard the same concerns. The senator said “we’re going to do everything we can to correct that.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said she was pleased the new federal prison would allow for more complete adoption of best practices for handling prison populations, including provisions for safety of employees and rehabilitation of inmates.

“Long before I got into politics, I worked in a minimum-security prison,” she said. “Prisons, rather than be exclusively punitive, should be places of rehabilitation. We know that 98% of incarcerated in Kansas will be released.”

Peters, who also addressed those at the groundbreaking, said she was proud of federal prison system employees who “come to work everyday, putting their lives on the line, in tough conditions.”

“We’ve been using the word crisis, and we need a new word, because it’s bigger than that,” Peters said. “I’m enthused because healthy and safe facilities are what’s best for our communities. We’re now talking about the principles of normalcy and humanity in order to do exactly what the governor said: Make individuals good neighbors when they come back to our communities.”

She said Leavenworth’s new prison would have space for state-of-the-art programs for treatment, education, work and to connect with family in a more normalized environment.

“That will make our prisons safer and will allow those in our care and custody to come home and back to our communities better served and better integrated,” the director said.

The U.S. Congress earmarked $532 million to finance construction of new federal prison facilities at Leavenworth to replace this penitentiary known as
The U.S. Congress earmarked $532 million to finance construction of new federal prison facilities at Leavenworth to replace this penitentiary known as “Big Top” built in 1897. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
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