Op-Ed

Reopening closed prison won’t solve real problems behind jail overcrowding

As Halloween nears, Gov. Matt Bevin has made a scary announcement. The private prison facility in Floyd County once known as Otter Creek is being reopened in response to overcrowding in county jails across the commonwealth.

The facility, owned by Tennessee-based company CoreCivic, will be leased to Kentucky and renamed the “Southeast State Correctional Complex.” This “new” facility will be staffed by state employees, not private prison contractors. Job fairs for the new positions are expected to get underway soon as Floyd County prepares to receive hundreds of inmates in the months ahead. Horrific, overcrowding conditions in Kentucky’s jails have been reported recently by the Herald-Leader, but leasing a private prison is not the solution to the problem.

The governor’s announcement shook my colleagues and ACLU of Kentucky justice reform advocates, to their cores. Any mention of Otter Creek opens up deep, deep wounds for many people who have experienced incarceration in Kentucky. The horrors that took place at Otter Creek are well-documented and made national headlines. Otter Creek employees raped female inmates. After a security breach, a gun was brought into the facility and an employee died by suicide. Doctors caring for the physical and mental health of those in custody reported Otter Creek staff as being untrained and/or unwilling to properly address health issues when they were raised. The conditions were so bad the state was forced to transfer female inmates out of the facility before it was eventually closed.

Some have said: “Wait, the employees at Southeast State Correctional Complex are going to be state employees this time around, not CoreCivic employees like the last time there were problems.” That is true, and some of the staff that committed atrocious abuses were prosecuted. However, the mayor of Wheelwright, KY, where the facility is located, says he expects many former CoreCivic employees still living in the area to apply for positions in the “new” facility. While the facility’s name may be changing, it seems some of the very same people that once walked its halls will be back.

Others have touted the prison’s re-opening as an exciting economic development for Eastern Kentucky that will create jobs and save taxpayers’ money. According to Herald Leader reports, the “new” facility will have an annual cost of $28 million, but will generate $11.4 million in savings because the state will no longer pay local jails to hold the approximately 650 state prisoners who will be moving to Southeast State Correctional Complex.

But what if we dreamed bigger than profiting off putting people in cages? What if instead of reopening a prison, we jump-started reforms like shorter prison sentences, diversion programs, and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for people with mental health challenges and substance use problems? What if the new jobs that were created focused on providing community-based treatment? What if the hundreds of new beds were available for mental health and rehabilitation programs?

Kentucky has a mass incarceration problem. As states across the country are moving to close jails, Kentucky keeps moving up the lists for its rate of people incarcerated. On any given day in Kentucky there are just over 24,000 people in custody in the state’s prisons, jails, or halfway houses. Kentucky’s overall incarceration rate is well over the national average and women’s incarceration rates are skyrocketing. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, if Kentucky were its own country, we would have the third highest rate of incarcerated women in the world. The opioid crisis has hit hard, filling Kentucky’s jails with people who struggle with their mental health and substance use disorder.

More jails and leased private prisons are not the solution to these problems. We have to find the political courage to change the policies that led to this situation, as opposed to simply reacting to the symptoms, by opening up more jail beds that must be filled to pay for themselves.

Amber Duke is the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

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