Hooked on private prisons

The state is a prisoner of private prisons. Privately owned, for-profit prisons haven't turned out to be the bargain for taxpayers that some had hoped. But Kentucky's packed prisons and jails make Kentucky's three private prisons a necessity nonetheless.

They'll remain a necessity until the legislature reforms sentencing laws that lock up too many non-violent criminals for too long and until the state comes up with more effective responses to widespread addiction and drug abuse.

The most glaring failure of private prisons in Kentucky is Otter Creek Correctional Center — which, like the state's other two private prisons, is owned and operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, the country's largest private-prison company.

Otter Creek housed women until widespread sexual abuse of prisoners by CCA employees forced Hawaii and then Kentucky to move the women prisoners. Kentucky replaced them with male inmates.

An investigation by The Courier-Journal's R.G. Dunlop revealed a failure of oversight by the state at Otter Creek, despite corrections department rules requiring full-time oversight of private prisons by state-employed monitors. The monitors simply were not doing the job, a situation that corrections officials have taken steps to rectify.

That was far from the only problem uncovered. Otter Creek has a higher rate of staff vacancies than state-run prisons — 9 percent in 2008-09, more than double the staff vacancy rate at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Peewee Valley. Inmate grievances were almost double the number at state prisons.

Kentucky paid CCA $21 million last year to operate Otter Creek, the Marion Adjustment Center and the Lee Adjustment Center.

CCA, an investor-owned company that's traded on the New York Stock Exchange, has reported that its first quarter earnings this year were up 3.4 percent while total revenue increased 2.7 percent to $414.9 million.

Starting pay at Otter Creek is $8.25 an hour. That's $3 less per hour than the state pays and almost $10 an hour less than a nearby federal prison.

The Legislative Research Commission has reported that the state's three private prisons housed 5.5 percent of the inmate population during 2008-09 at a cost of 5.3 percent of the state's total inmate cost. Given that the most expensive inmates — those who are high-risk, sick or on Death Row — are in state-run prisons, the private prisons can't brag about their efficiencies.

Kentucky now spends almost $500 million a year imprisoning about 21,000 people. The burgeoning costs of all those prisoners is sucking money out of education and other programs that build human capital for the future.

As Kentucky begins the hard work of rebalancing its priorities, it's unrealistic to think private prisons will be part of the solution.