Kris Kobach needs to go to prison. Let me explain.
Kobach wants to be the state’s next governor. If elected, he will immediately become responsible for the state’s crumbling prison system. Earlier this week, a prison disturbance—some say a riot—resulted in several inmates being transferred from the Norton facility. Employee representative Robert Choromanski calls the whole system “a powder keg.” Chronic staff shortages result from brutal conditions, combined with a starting pay less than $14 per hour. At El Dorado, the response has been mandatory overtime, with employees pushed to 60 hours a week. Violence keeps breaking out at Lansing, and inmates are double-bunked throughout the system. Lockdowns are common. Small raises in employee pay have been offered, but far short of the need. The decrepit facilities at Lansing are among the oldest prison buildings in this country still in use. State senator Carolyn McGinn says, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Nationwide, more than 2 million people—about 1% of the adult population—are in prison, 90% in state facilities and local jails, not federal penitentiaries. That does not account for the millions more on parole, on probation, or unable to find work thanks to that “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box on job applications—that notorious Catch 22 that sends many back to prison, unable to find lawful work.
A program called Face to Face, co-sponsored by the Council of State Governments, recently sent governors into prisons to talk to staff and inmates. These include the governors of Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Utah, plus Ohio’s Attorney General. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy emerged calling prisons “very dark places” which we must stop ignoring. Governor Steve Bullock of Montana added, “behind the statistics are real people.” Missouri’s Eric Greitens wishes that people could see what prison staff do every day.
Sam Brownback has not participated, nor has Secretary Kobach. Perhaps Kobach was too busy congratulating Arizona’s cruel ex-Sherriff Joe Arpiao on his presidential pardon. Enforcing laws that Kobach wrote, Arpiao twisted local law enforcement’s responsibilities to include immigration enforcement. Incarcerating people in his notorious “tent city” prison camps, where several died, Arpiao was found by the Justice Department to be racially profiling Hispanic people, then holding them past their release dates. Arpaio defied the court order, leading to a second one, this time for contempt. This is what President Trump excused with a pardon, just before Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston. Pardon or no pardon, the voters of Maricopa County, Arizona have finally had it: they rejected Arpaio’s bid for re-election last year. The tent city prisons—which some observers call concentration camps–are now being dismantled.
Maricopa County voters made a good choice this time. Arpaio-Kobach tactics are not only cruel and unconstitutional, they are also ineffective. They are also unbelievably expensive, to the tune of $142 million in settlements and court costs.
In reality, terrified of being deported, undocumented immigrants are less likely be involved in crime than are American citizens. Furthermore, as the mess in our own Kansas prisons attests, state and local law enforcement is already stretched to the breaking point. They have no resources or expertise to enforce federal laws, and it is not their job. They do not even have the support they need to do their existing jobs.
The governors participating in Face to Face represent different parties, politics, and regions, but each is willing to start a discussion about a painful, dark place– one that most of us would rather not imagine, let alone experience. This is leadership. By contrast, Kobach ignores the call, preferring instead to score easy political points based on racial fears, while dumping mandates on the system until it breaks.
Kris Kobach really needs to go to prison.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.