U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, celebrated the decision to allocate $356 million for construction of a new federal prison and a prison camp to replace the 120-year-old U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
LEAVENWORTH — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons director and the Leavenworth penitentiary warden Thursday to extol allocation of $356 million for construction of a new prison and satellite prison camp that would keep one of the area’s largest employers intact.
Moran said it was the largest federally financed building project in Kansas since $1.2 billion was earmarked for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.
The objective is to replace the 120-year-old U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, which is blessed with solid walls and burdened by antiquated infrastructure.
“This means that Leavenworth will continue to be the home of the Bureau of Prisons, with a major facility with significant employment long into the future,” said Moran, a Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee with oversight of the Bureau of Prisons.
Congress allocated $181 million in the current fiscal year and $175 million in the previous fiscal year to complete the financial package. Federal funding had been sought for the project since at least 2010. The project will bring the Leavenworth’s federal prison operation into the 21st century, while also providing hundreds of jobs during the multi-year construction project. The site will be on federal land next to the existing penitentiary.
Don Hudson, warden at the Leavenworth prison, said the existing prison structure was well built. However, he said, the building’s water, heating and electrical systems proved too costly to renovate.
“It’s the infrastructure of the facility,” Hudson said during a news conference at a Leavenworth fire station. “It’s used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for 120 years.”
Moran said the Bureau of Prisons and the City of Leavenworth would determine what to do with the vacated prison building. One suggestion, he said, was to develop a law enforcement museum. Another idea is to establish a Bureau of Prisons training facility, he said.
Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal, who worked as a correctional officer at the Leavenworth prison from 2002 to 2005, said he was appreciative of the campaign to bring the new federal correctional institute to northeast Kansas.
“We appreciate the work that’s been done and we appreciate everything that’s going on for the community support,” he said. “I look forward to coming back and cutting the ribbon on FCI Leavenworth in the near future.”
Moran was asked whether the federal government’s priority during the COVID-19 pandemic should be creation of new housing for prison inmates.
“I don’t know any communities in Kansas or across the country that wouldn’t be excited about $350 million of construction occurring in their community at any time,” the senator said. “But with the challenges that COVID has created in our economy, no doubt these jobs are even more valuable.”
He said the project offered local residents some economic certainty during a pandemic in which little was certain.
“We don’t know exactly what COVID means. We don’t know when it’s going to be over. We don’t know whether we’re going to work tomorrow,” Moran said.
Moran was quizzed about his perspective on mass incarceration of black men in prisons and jails. The senator said he had advocated legislation to reduce incarceration for minor drug offenses and to concentrate resources on the most violent offenders.
He also said the shocking death of black people in custody of law enforcement officers pointed to the need for policing reform on a national level. The challenge, he said, is Congress became so divided politically that an opportunity in 2020 had been missed to craft compromise legislation capable of bringing racial justice to the legal system.
“Unfortunately, because of the divisive political nature we’ve pulled ourselves apart after we had this moment in which Americans were all united in changing the way things are,” Moran said.
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