Editorials

A reckoning has come for Kentucky’s packed, dangerous jails. Legislators must act.

Caged: How Kentucky dangerously overcrowds its county jails with state prisoners

More than half of Kentucky's 24,000 state prisoners are housed in one of 76 local jails because 12 state prisons are full. As a result, dozens of county jails are overcrowded, leaving inmates to sleep on thin mats and creating dangerous situations.
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More than half of Kentucky's 24,000 state prisoners are housed in one of 76 local jails because 12 state prisons are full. As a result, dozens of county jails are overcrowded, leaving inmates to sleep on thin mats and creating dangerous situations.

Eleven years ago, the Herald-Leader published a detailed story about terrible conditions in county jails due to overcrowding. They were filled with inmates sent from state prisons that no longer had enough room. Reporter John Cheves wrote a harrowing account of those inmates, forced to sleep on filthy floors in tiny jails filled many times beyond their capacity, subject to sickness, violence and suicide and cut off from drug rehab or job training.

This month, in his four-part investigative series CAGED, Cheves returned to those county jails, now packed to 121 percent of capacity, showing, if possible, even more inhumane conditions: Inmates packed into tiny, dirty places, crawling with scabies. Addicts writhing on the floor in cold turkey withdrawal. Riots. Rape. Assaults. Suicide.

Even worse, some jailers, who are accountable only to their county voters, have decided to monetize the system by expanding their jail facilities so they can take even more state inmates with their $31 per diem payment from the state to raise revenue. Of the 25,177 people sitting in Kentucky jails, 11,428 of them are state inmates.

The situation is a total disgrace that should lie solely on the collective conscience of Kentucky’s state lawmakers. As we know from our state’s underfunded pension system, our legislators are extremely skilled at ignoring problems until they’ve reached crisis point.

What they’re not very good at is passing common sense legislation that could have solved these problems by now.

By now, leaders in most other states have recognized that tough crime bills — including mandatory sentencing and bail requirements — passed in the 1980s have had disastrous effects on society, including packing state prisons beyond their capacities.

Last year, a bill that was backed by Gov. Matt Bevin would have solved some of these problems by redefining some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including first- and second-offense drug possession. This would have kept thousands more out of jail and kept them from felony convictions. The bill also would have raised the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $2,000. The legislation was estimated to lessen the tide of humans swamping state prisons, thereby saving more than $340 million over the next decade.

But too many legislators thought it made them look “soft on crime,” so the bill died in committee.

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The public has limited sympathy for convicted criminals. But it’s clear that someone arrested for possession of marijuana (a drug that’s now legal in at least 11 states) shouldn’t be killed in jail because too many people are crowded into a space without air, light and cots. Nor should someone with mental illness commit suicide because county jails don’t have the experts or resources to help them.

More legislative efforts at criminal justice reform will be introduced in January that lawmakers can continue to ignore. But, as experts warned recently, the conditions in county jails have dipped to such a low level that a federal lawsuit against cruel and unusual treatment may be on the horizon.

“It behooves legislators to act on this while they still have the freedom to and it is not a federal judge dictating those things,”Josh Crawford, director of criminal justice policy at the Pegasus Institute told a legislative committee last week.

As we’ve seen many times before in this state, the way forward is clear, but lawmakers will have to do some things they often avoid: Carefully read what’s sure to be a complicated bill, think about what’s best for the state, rather than their own re-election efforts, and vote to bring their state out of this inhumane nightmare.

There are multiple pragmatic reasons to pass criminal justice reform, which is the only path to true reform. One of them is that most inmates held in a county jail have little to no access to drug treatment, counseling, or job training. Yet they will be released back into our communities, chastened but hardly given a chance at reform.

Then there is the moral reckoning. It’s easy to dismiss criminals without seeing them as fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, humans. But no one deserves to die as Michael Moore did in the overcrowded Boyd County Detention Center. Booked for the minor offense of public intoxication, he was strapped to a chair and beaten to death by guards.

“Most people don’t care,” Moore’s aunt, Brenda Murphy told Cheves. “They say, ‘They’re all criminals, they probably deserve whatever happens to them in there.’ But everyone in there is somebody’s child. You need to remember that.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we report this story?

Like many people who call the Herald-Leader newsroom, this woman was angry. On this January day, her son was an inmate in the Madison County Detention Center and she feared for his life. The jail — built to hold 184 people — that week was dangerously overcrowded with 418 inmates, some of them state prisoners serving their time in the jail because there was no space for them in the state’s prisons. The cramped quarters led to violence, she said.

That sounded like a bad situation. And it proved to be true.

We’ve written about overcrowding in Kentucky’s county jails before, including an in-depth story in 2008 just as Steve Beshear began his two terms as governor.

“I’m not sure what to do,” Beshear admitted to us then. “Obviously, a great number of offenders who are in our jails and in our prisons right now are drug-related. We all know for a fact that if there is an answer to the drug problem, it’s treatment and rehabilitation. But that costs money. And right now, we don’t have any.”

Eleven years later, Kentucky’s county jails are in even worse shape. We hope this series of stories rekindles a discussion — and perhaps ignites a lawsuit — that forces Kentucky’s politicians to finally face the realities of the broken judicial system they’ve created.

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