Kentucky returning inmates to for-profit prison four years after dumping company

Kentucky has ‘unsustainable prison growth rate’

Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley announced on Nov. 16, 2017, that the state will move inmates to a private prison because of overcrowding in state prisons and county jails.
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Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley announced on Nov. 16, 2017, that the state will move inmates to a private prison because of overcrowding in state prisons and county jails.

Kentucky plans to resume using private prisons by moving 800 inmates from the aging, overcrowded Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange to a prison in Lee County that has been shuttered for several years.

Private, for-profit prisons have been plagued by controversy in Kentucky and elsewhere around the country, including a costly riot at the Lee County prison and sexual assaults of female inmates at a Floyd County prison owned by the same company, Nashville-based CoreCivic.

Critics have accused CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, of cutting corners on staffing to boost profits, not providing good medical care and failing to properly protect inmates. A recent audit in Tennessee found understaffing at a prison the company runs and a lack of adequate state oversight.

Kentucky Justice Secretary John C. Tilley said Thursday that state officials are well aware of those issues and have taken pains to craft a contract with CoreCivic designed to ward off problems and provide the same level of inmate services and public safety as at state-owned prisons.

CoreCivic will have to maintain the same staffing levels that the state uses in its prisons, and the state will do the background checks on prospective CoreCivic employees. The company’s employees must have the same qualifications as employees at state prisons, and the state will be able to get rid of employees if needed, Tilley said.

Other terms include that CoreCivic will have to provide the same level of education, health care and other programs available in state prisons and must use the same vendors as the state. The state also will have access to a full-time video feed of all areas of the prison covered by cameras.

The company can be fined $5,000 per day, per inmate for violations, and Tilley said he’s determined to collect if necessary.

“We intend to provide more oversight than they’ve seen in any facility that they manage in the country, or anywhere else,” Tilley said Thursday.

State Sen. Robin Webb, who is on the legislature’s budget subcommittee on justice and the judiciary, said she remains wary of using private prisons for state inmates.

Her concerns include the potential for high turnover among employees and less supervision of inmates.

“There’s a reason we quit doing it,” Webb, D-Grayson, said of using private prisons. “These people that we incarcerate are people. They deserve a standard of care.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky also issued a caution on the decision.

“We’re moving back to a system of private corrections that didn’t work in the commonwealth because inmates were abused and resources mismanaged,” ACLU official Kate Miller said in a statement.

Jonathan Burns, spokesman for CoreCivic, said the company provides a critical service for prison systems such as Kentucky’s that are overcrowded, “which can create dangerous conditions for staff, inmates and communities.”

“CoreCivic is subject to robust oversight and accountability measures by our government partners” and is committed to providing services to help inmates successfully transition to society, Burns said.

The legislature directed state corrections officials to explore resuming the use of private prisons. There are only three in Kentucky, all owned by CoreCivic, in Lee, Floyd County and Marion counties.

Tilley said the state had no choice but to resume the use of private prisons because state prisons and dozens of county jails the state uses to house its prisoners are at capacity or badly overcrowded.

Some county jails are more than 200 percent over capacity, with prisoners sleeping on mats on the floor.

Tilley, a former state representative, was a key force behind a measure lawmakers approved in 2011 to try to reduce the state’s prison population and save money. The changes included reduced penalties for some drug-possession crimes, greater emphasis on getting people into drug treatment and more use of parole supervision to get inmates out of prison a little earlier.

The state’s prison population dipped below 20,000 in 2013 with the reforms, but has since gone back up, in part because of the state’s epidemic of abuse of opioids.

Tilley said another factor is that local court officials are not using diversion and pretrial release programs as much as supporters of the reform measure hoped they would. That means more low-risk inmates charged with crimes such as drug possession stay in local jails, driving up costs, Tilley said.

The state’s prison population climbed to 22,089 in November 2015 and hit 24,367 this week.

The state will move the 800 general-population inmates from the Kentucky State Reformatory in the next four months and mothball dorms there.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Erwin said the rest of the facility will remain open for inmates with medical and mental-health needs.

Tilley said it is expensive to maintain the prison because it is 80 years old.

In addition, unemployment is so low in the Oldham County area that it has been hard for the state to hire corrections officers for the four state prisons there. That has forced the Department of Corrections to bring in workers from elsewhere in the state, resulting in added costs for overtime pay, travel and lodging.

The state spent $13 million in fiscal year 2016 on overtime and other additional costs to staff the Oldham County facilities, said Brad Holajter, executive director of the cabinet.

The cost of paying CoreCivic to house the 800 inmates will be a wash for the state because of the savings on maintenance and overtime costs at the reformatory in LaGrange, Tilley said.

The state will pay CoreCivic $57.68 a day for each inmate at the Lee Adjustment Center. The state’s cost at a comparable state prison, the Green River Correctional Complex, is $64.09 a day, Holajter said.

State law requires a 10 percent savings to use a private prison.

The contract with CoreCivic, finalized Thursday, runs through June 30, 2019. It includes two potential renewals of a year each.

Kentucky once housed prisoners in all three of CoreCivics prisons here, but pulled out of Lee County in 2010, Floyd County in 2012 and Marion County in 2013.

Former Gov. Steve Beshear ordered all of Kentucky’s female inmates moved from CoreCivic’s Floyd County facility, then called the Otter Creek Correctional Center, because of charges that guards had sexually abused inmates.

Inmates at the Lee County prison, many of them from Vermont, rioted in 2004, burning the administration building and severely damaging a housing unit.

A Vermont corrections official later said the inmates had complained about limited recreational time, smaller portions and less variety of food, and a disciplinary crackdown that the staff didn’t explain.

If the state doesn’t reduce its inmate population, Kentucky will have to move inmates back to the CoreCivic prisons in Floyd and Marion counties, renovate its own prison space to comply with standards or build new state prisons, officials said.

Tilley said it would be far better for the state to undertake further reforms aimed at cutting its incarceration rate, which remains among the top 5 per capita in the nation.

One possible change would be to raise the amount of a theft that qualifies as a felony from $500. The threshold in South Carolina is $2,000 and Texas uses $2,500, Tilley said.

The state also needs to look at revising the bail system so that low-level, non-violent offenders don’t spend months in jail awaiting trial, Tilley said.

“There are just ways that we know that are smart on crime, that will control corrections costs, still hold offenders accountable, and do so in a way that we can save taxpayer dollars, precious resources, to fund education, to fund pensions, to fund greater infrastructure, to fund law enforcement,” Tilley said.