Politics & Government

Kentucky plans to lease private prison to reduce overcrowding at jails

Kentucky plans to lease a private prison in Floyd County and move hundreds of inmates there to make a dent in overcrowding that has pushed some county jails far past their capacity, creating potentially dangerous conditions and depriving inmates of some services.

The state will pay the owner of the prison, Nashville-based CoreCivic, to use the facility in Wheelwright, which was once known as Otter Creek but will now be called the Southeast State Correctional Complex.

Gov. Matt Bevin and other state officials announced the plan Friday in Wheelwright. Bevin signed an executive order reorganizing the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to include the facility.

“The lease of the Southeast State facility will allow us to simultaneously address overcrowding in our prison system while being smart with state resources,” said Bevin.

Personnel Secretary Thomas Stephens said the prison will put 193 people on the state payroll. The starting salary for correctional officers will be $30,000, a good wage in a place hit hard by a drop in coal jobs. Job fairs are expected to begin next week.

When the contract with CoreCivic is finalized, two of three prisons the company owns in Kentucky, which were all closed at one point, will be back in business.

The state announced a deal in 2017 to move 800 inmates from an aging state prison to CoreCivic’s Lee Adjustment Center in Lee County.

The Floyd County prison housed 650 inmates before it closed in 2012, and the hope is to move about that many back into the prison, state Justice Secretary John Tilley said.

Rather than pay CoreCivic to house inmates, as the state does at the Lee County facility, the plan is to lease the Floyd County prison for an initial period of 10 years and hire state employees to operate it.

Kentucky’s history with private prisons has not been altogether smooth, but for many people in Floyd County, the news of 200 jobs was as welcome as rain on a parched field.

“This is huge for Floyd County,” said Judge-Executive Robbie Williams.

The economy of the county, like others in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, has been hurt by a sharp decline in coal jobs since 2011.

There were 257 coal jobs in Floyd County in the second quarter of this year, down from 599 in 2011, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet

The planned jobs at the prison will spread benefits through the economy of the whole area, said Wheelwright Mayor Don “Booty” Hall.

“It makes everything do good — your stores, your gas stations, your restaurants,” Hall said.

Kentucky plans to lease this private prison in Wheelwright to help relieve overcrowding in county jails. Department of Corrections

The state plans to move some experienced officers from other prisons to work at the Wheelwright facility, but Hall said there are a number of former CoreCivic employees in the area who would likely apply.

The contract with CoreCivic has not been finished but state officials expect it will be soon. The company has kept a few employees at the prison to maintain it, so it’s in good shape.

Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Kenney said the prison may need some security modifications, but the hope is to be able to move inmates at the beginning of the year.

“We will be very focused on activating this facility as quickly as we can and as safely as we can,” Kenney said.

Hiring state workers at the prison will cost more than paying CoreCivic to hold them. However, state officials felt the deal was the best way to get additional prison beds quickly.

“The population problems in local jails have become untenable,” Tilley said. “Today’s plan provides a sensible framework to assist county jails, relieve some of the population pressures, and meet our public safety obligations, all while maintaining state control of the facility and its operations.”

In addition, the legislature barred the Department of Corrections in the current budget from hiring a private prison company to hold inmates. The department couldn’t make another deal like the one in place in Lee County, Kenney said.

The Department of Corrections will run the prison with budgeted money it has the discretion to use, Tilley said.

Officials did not have a final figure on the annual cost to run the prison because the lease price hasn’t been locked in. State prisons of similar size cost about $15 million a year to operate, a figure which wouldn’t include the lease price to CoreCivic, Kenney said.

Opening a new prison will be an additional net cost to taxpayers, though the state will save some money by not having to pay local jails to house inmates, and will avoid having to build a new prison at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, officials said.

Lee Adjustment Cener(2)
Aerial photograph of the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, in Lee County. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

The Herald-Leader recently documented serious overcrowding in county jails resulting from holding state prisoners, creating potentially dangerous conditions.

Tilley said of the 76 full-service local jails in Kentucky, 37 are at 140 percent of capacity, and 10 have more than double the number of inmates they’re rated to house.

Inmates are the responsibility of the state once they’re sentenced on a felony conviction, but the state doesn’t have enough beds in its 12 prisons to hold all of them.

There are more than 2,000 people in local jails awaiting transfer to state prisons but there is no space for them, Tilley said.

The inmates being held in jails do not have access to as many services, such as drug treatment and job training, as they do at state prisons. Corrections officials believe they can reduce recidivism by getting more people into state facilities that have education and other programs, allowing the state to save money n the long run.

State lawmakers approved changes in 2011 aimed at reducing the prison population and holding down costs. The state prison system costs taxpayers about $650 million a year.

Tilley, a former state legislator, pushed those reforms, which included reducing penalties for some drug-possession crimes, greater focus on getting people into drug treatment and more use of parole supervision to move inmates out of prison.

The state’s prison population dropped below 20,000 in 2013 as a result, but has since gone back up.

On Thursday, there were just over 24,000 inmates in state prisons, county jails and halfway houses.

It’s clear from the numbers that re-opening the Floyd County prison won’t eliminate overcrowding in Kentucky.

The state is exploring other options, Tilley said, including the potential to reopen CoreCivic’s third prison in Kentucky, which is in Marion County.

One reason prison beds filled back up was the state’s problem with drug abuse.

But administration officials also have argued that court officials are not using tools such as diversion and pretrial release as aggressively as possible, meaning low-risk offenders stay in jail, driving up costs.

Wheelwright prison
Gov. Matt Bevin, at the table, signs an order on Oct. 18, 2019 to house state inmates at a privately-owned prison in Floyd County as state and local officials look on. Bill Estep bestep@herald-leader.com

Bevin’s administration pushed a package of additional changes last year aimed at stopping the growth in Kentucky’s inmate rolls, including reducing some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors; raising the amount of money needed to trigger a felony charge from $500 to $2,000; and increasing the use of parole.

Supporters said the changes would reduce the state’s prison population and cut costs without compromising public safety, but some prosecutors and judges objected that the proposal made too many big changes too quickly.

The bill didn’t get called for a vote in the House.

The administration will try again in the next legislative session, Tilley said.

“We support a significant reduction in population, a common-sense approach to this,” he said.

Without additional reforms, the state will continue to face higher costs for incarceration, Tilley said.

Kentucky once paid CoreCivic to house inmates at all three of its prisons in Kentucky, but had stopped using all three by 2013.

The state stopped using the Floyd County prison after accusations that guards had sexually abused female inmates.

The prison in Lee County was the scene of a riot in 2004 in which inmates, many from Vermont, burned the administration building and damaged a housing unit.

An official from Vermont said the inmates had complained about irritants that included limited recreation, small food portions and a disciplinary crackdown.

Kentucky officials insisted on a number of standards to guard against potential problems when the state signed a deal in 2017 to return inmates to the Lee Adjustment Center.

Bevin, a Republican, is locked in a tight race for reelection against Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, with the vote just over two weeks away.

The road into Wheelwright, which is in a majority Democratic county, was peppered with Bevin campaign signs Friday, but he said the move to reopen the prison was not about politics.

“This is not patronage,” he said.