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Amid Overcrowding, Kentucky Considers Reopening Private Prisons

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

State prisons are at capacity, county jails are overcrowded and the state is recommending transferring about 1,600 inmates to private prisons that have been shuttered for the past several years.

Officials ended the state’s last private prison contract in 2013, partly as a cost savings measure and also in response to scandals at privately owned prisons in the state.

John Tilley, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said that it was “critical” that the Kentucky consider reopening the private prisons. He said past efforts to reduce the prison population haven’t panned out.

“Parole grant rates are not where we thought they would be,” Tilley said. “Revocations of those on parole are higher than they were projected. And generally there’s so much discretion built into the court system.”

Tilley said that many judges throughout the state haven’t bought into prison reforms, instead sentencing convicted criminals to incarceration over diversion or treatment programs that would keep people out of prison.

“At a much higher clip for some reason they’re sentenced to prison as opposed to other states,” Tilley said. “And that’s something we’ve got to look at again. We tried to reverse that trend and bring some proportionality and that hasn’t happened.”

When he was a state representative, Tilley championed the passage of a 2011 criminal justice reform bill that was intended to reduced penalties for some drug crimes and put addicted defendants into treatment programs to avoid incarceration.

But the reforms haven’t reduced the number of people behind bars in Kentucky, instead the prison population has increased slightly from an average of 21,280 in 2011 to 23,701 in June 2016.

According to the Justice Cabinet, over a third of state inmates are housed in county jails. Of the state’s 128 jails, 26 have populations over 140 percent capacity according to the cabinet.

That’s partly because jails house many of the state’s class D and class C felons in addition to about 4,000 inmates classified as “controlled intake,” meaning they’re waiting to be transferred to a state prison.

Kentucky’s two-year state budget passed this spring included provisions allowing the state to reopen three private prisons located in Marion County, Lee County and Floyd County.

The prisons are owned by Corrections Corporation of America, with which the state phased out contracts between 2010 and 2013 amid allegations of mismanagement at the institutions.

Otter Creek Correctional Center, located in Wheelwright (in Floyd County) and owned by CCA, closed after widespread reports of sexual abuse forced the state to transfer female inmates out of the institution.

Sen. Robin Web, a Democrat from Grayson, said the state shouldn’t reopen the institutions.

“There’s a reason why we stopped doing this, there’s a reason why we closed those things down,” Webb said. “We don’t need to lose sight of that even though we are ripe for litigation.”

Tilley didn’t have an estimate of how much it would cost to house inmates in private prisons. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Jailers Association estimated it costs the state about $35 per day to house inmates in county jails, versus $55 per day in private institutions.

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