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Private Prisons Back To Kentucky? Louisville Jail Officials Say Yes

The inmates saw an opportunity and didn't let it pass.

Just beyond the iron bars shuffled a herd of reporters holding hot microphones and television cameras during a recent media tour.

"Y'all want the truth, you're going to get it," said one man clad in an orange jumpsuit.

The dozen or so men talked over each other, lamenting the state of the toilets and showers at the city's jail. Some expressed frustration about safety measures.

"Ask them about the overcrowding," shouted one man.

The men are being held in an overflow facility above the city's police headquarters in downtown Louisville. The antiquated space fails to meet certain safety standards, jail officials said. The HVAC is broken. It lacks a sprinkler system.

But it's a critical piece of infrastructure for Louisville Metro Corrections officials burdened with a jail that's well beyond capacity. Without it, the men would find themselves in one of the already cramped cells in the jail's main facility.

Overcrowding is a big problem in Louisville. It taxes jail staff and costs taxpayers. For jailhouse officials, it's a problem with no quick fix.

But they have some ideas.

'We want them to fix it'

Louisville Metro Corrections is designed to hold 1,791 inmates.

A report from the Kentucky Department of Corrections issued on March 2 shows 2,294 inmates were being held in the jail. That's 503 inmates more than the facility's authorized capacity — and it's no anomaly. Overcrowding is becoming the new norm for the jail.

Mark Bolton, the jail's director, has long said one cause of consistent overcrowding is a cumbersome process for state officials to remove state felony offenders from the local jail and into state prisons.

That effort, he said, has "slowed down dramatically over the course of about the last year."

When asked for specific remedies, Steve Durham, the jail's assistant director, declined to suggest what state officials should do.

"I don't have their solutions, I don't know what their solutions are going to be," he said. "We want them to fix it."

Durham, however, didn't balk when asked if reopening private prisons in the state could alleviate pressures on the city's jail.

"I think it's a good idea," he said. "There has to be a change."

A Critical Consideration

Whether to reopen private prisons is a contentious issue in Kentucky.

The last private prison to operate in Kentucky shuttered in 2013, after state officials declined to enter into a new contract with the facility. Private prisons operated in Kentucky for some three decades and during that time drew fire for reports of sexual abuse.

State lawmakers approved a two-year budget in 2016 with provisions allowing the state to reopen three private prisons located in Marion, Lee and Floyd counties.

The approval came against the wishes of top officials at the Kentucky Jailers Association, the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association, and the Kentucky County Judges Association, who sent a letter asking Gov. Matt Bevin to veto the provision.

They argued that reopening private prisons would shift money away from local governments and be a bigger drain on state agencies. Currently, county jails are compensated $32 per day for housing state inmates, according to the letter. Housing inmates in private prisons would cost the state about $55 a day, they argued.

"Private prisons were given a chance to operate in Kentucky in the past, and they failed to operate safely and in a fiscally sound manner," the groups wrote.

Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, told The Courier-Journal last year that private prisons could "undermine common sense justice policies."

"I think there are ways now to hold people accountable, maintain public safety and reduce the number of people behind bars in Kentucky without opening private prisons," she said in October 2016.

Some state officials see it differently.

Earlier this year, John Tilley, head of the state's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said it was “critical” that state government consider reopening private prisons.

While no final decision has yet been made on whether private prisons will be reopened, officials are continuing to review the possibility, said cabinet spokesman Mike Wynn in an email.

Like the jail in Louisville, smaller county jails across the state are suffering from overcrowding as well, state data show. Prisons, however, are also consistently teetering near capacity. And this leaves little room for state officials to move inmates out of local jails.

Durham, the assistant director of Louisville Metro Corrections, said private prisons can be "effective and they can be valuable and they useful."

But, he cautioned, those in control of private prisons must not be chasing "a dollar and a buck."

"You need people that care," he said.

'It's bad'

Above the police headquarters, some of the men in the cell complained about the grimy conditions of the 1950s-era facility. They lamented the evacuation plan and the fire extinguishers. They said the toilets don't flush and when they do, they overflow.

"It's bad," one man shouted.

As a television blared, they watched through the bars as the reporters filtered through a door and out of sight.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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