TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Goods made by Kansas prisoners, including residential houses, could be sold more widely under two bills before a House committee.
Both of the bills introduced Monday would allow the secretary of corrections to sell products to any person or businesses in Kansas, including inmates. Another would permit a vocational building program at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in central Kansas to manufacture up to five housing units a year for sale or donation to the public.
Under current law, the secretary may only sell prison goods — which also include dormitory furniture and outdoor furniture — to state employees, churches, organizations and governmental entities.
A local education service center would provide building materials and offer skill training to the inmates. The Ellsworth program existed for several years, but it was cut from the Kansas Correctional Industries syllabus in 2009. Gov. Sam Brownback expressed interest in reinstating it during a prison visit last year.
Interim Corrections Secretary Johnnie Goddard told the House Committee on Commerce, Labor and Economic Development on Monday the program would reduce the recidivism rate from 35 percent to 18 percent. He said that coupled with GED training and job placement, inmates from the vocational program were more likely to enter the work field after being released.
"It's our job to teach them skills," Goddard said.
Proponents including an insurance agent, a banker and the county commissioner from Ellsworth said the program also would address the shortage in rural housing. Rob Fillion, the Executive Director of the Smoky Hill Development Corporation said that the program would help increase local job creation because flooring, lumber and landscape businesses would finish the remainder of the houses.
"This is a piece of the puzzle to increase rural housing," Fillion said.
Opponents from the building industry and manufactured housing associations argued the measures would create unfair competition. The Department of Corrections would only pay inmates up to $1.05 a day.
"If both of these pieces of legislation ... represent good public policy to expand government into the private sector, what other industry could they expand to?" said Martha Smith, the Executive Director of Kansas Manufactured Housing Association.
She added that the site builders also would avoid standard expenses such as recruitment costs, minimum wage, vacation time and sick leave.
"What type of competitor could compete?" Smith said.
The committee has not scheduled a debate for the bills.