Private prison redux would be the wrong way for Kentucky

Kentucky should resist pressure to reopen private prisons because, as the federal government is finally admitting, they’re less safe and effective than those run by the government and don’t even save money.

In response to a recent critical inspector general report, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Thursday that it has decided to phase out 13 private prisons in the federal corrections system as their contracts expire.

But, in Kentucky, Justice Secretary John Tilley has said he is considering reopening private prisons owned by Corrections Corp. of America in Marion and Lee counties to relieve the pressure on brimming state prisons and some overcrowded local jails.

Tilley told a legislative committee that he was considering the private prison option just days after he and Gov. Matt Bevin launched an effort to reform a criminal code that is locking up too many Kentuckians for too long, at an extreme cost to taxpayers and the economy.

Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which has already started work, has the blessings of Kentucky Smart on Crime, the diverse coalition that successfully supported this year’s new law allowing some Kentuckians to expunge felony convictions that block even the rehabilitated from participating in the workforce. This broad support bodes well for action in the 2017 General Assembly.

While overcrowding of prisoners is a human rights issue and genuine concern, using private prisons as a stopgap would only detract from the push for long-term reform. Tilley should do all he can to avoid resorting to private prisons.

Kentucky’s three-decade experience with the private prison industry mirrors the Justice Department’s findings. Allegations of inmate abuse and mistreatment produced a riot at CCA’s Lee Adjustment Center in 2004. At the company’s Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright in Floyd County, female prisoners were sexually abused by prison staff amid lapses in medical care and security. Hawaii pulled its female inmates from Otter Creek in 2009 in response to the evidence of sexual abuse and the next year Kentucky did too.

In 2013, Kentucky ended its use of private prisons, expecting to save up to $2.5 million a year, in part because criminal justice reforms enacted in 2011 were expected to reduce the prison population. Those reforms have fallen short, which is why Bevin is wisely taking the issue back to the drawing board.

The administration also is under political and economic pressure to reopen private prisons that provided employment in places desperate for jobs. Plus, the private prison industry is a formidable force that has spent millions of dollars on lobbying and contributions to political candidates. The industry would use its influence to make a temporary solution permanent.

The state should work to create economic opportunity in places like Wheelwright. But taxpayer support for the private prison industry is false economy, bad public policy and something Kentucky should avoid.