Safety and fiscal responsibility are in a race and there is a chance that both could lose

One issue that unites most political candidates is the idea of being tough on crime.

Everyone wants tougher sentences and harsher conditions for people who break the law. But then when the check comes due, people are less excited about that idea.

In El Dorado, Warden James Heimgartner and his staff incarcerate about 1,500 men.

That is about 20 percent of all Kansas inmates. All but one of Kansas’ death row prisoners reside in his facility.

It isn’t a fun job, but Heimgartner began at the bottom and has worked his way all the way up to warden in almost 20 years.

The warden has a higher headcount than his capacity allows. He manages the problem by sending a maximum security inmate to another facility to make room for additional inmates that don’t require the same housing and security measures.

Soon, there could be up to 1,000 more inmates at the El Dorado location.

A recent study showed that there are about 8,000 inmates in the system. With every law that is passed, sentences grow longer and more crimes require prison time.

With the state system at capacity, growth will be necessary and El Dorado’s Correctional Facility has room to grow.

Unfortunately, about half of those new inmates will be mentally ill. Heimgartner said currently 48 percent of the inmates in El Dorado require some form of mental health care. A large portion are also substance abusers.

Obviously, the rate of incarceration would drop if those problems were handled outside of the prison gates.

It costs about $3 per day to feed an inmate, but the cost of drugs for mental patients can be as high as $13.50 a day. It isn’t difficult math to see why the cost of incarcerating criminals continues to climb.

El Dorado is also home to the state prison system’s only oncology ward. Criminals who commit crimes after being diagnosed with cancer or who contract the disease after being sentenced are all housed and treated in El Dorado.

That process isn’t cheap or easy.

The prison system is also required by law to provide for the spiritual health of all inmates. Whether they are Rastafarian, Wiccan, Muslim, Morman, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or Christian – to name just a few of the recognized religions – the facility has to provide space to practice their faith. The instruments of worship come from donations or the prisoners’ own money, but the jail has to provide space.

In El Dorado, a $1 million facility was built with private money to provide for many of those needs. In fact, about 10 percent of the inmates attend services on any given Sunday.

Heimgartner said some of those may be devout but many just relish the time out of the cells and away from the guards.

Regardless of their faithfulness, addictions or mental of physical health situations, they all share the same walls and are secured away from society.

As the number of detainees grows, so does the budget needed to care for them.

Safety and fiscal responsibility are in a race and there is a chance that both could lose.

Legislators have to find a balance that can keep law-abiding citizens safe without taking away from education or other positive social programs to pay the bills.

Kent Bush is the publisher of the Augusta Gazette, the El Dorado Times, and the Andover American newspapers. He can be contacted at: