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Fight Brewing Between County Jails and Private Prisons in Kentucky

A bill introduced in the Kentucky legislature proposed removing approximately 3,500 Class D state prisoners currently held in county jails and transferring them to private prisons owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Opponents claimed the bill made no fiscal sense. The state pays the counties $31.34 per prisoner per day to house Class D state prisoners (plus $9.00 per diem for jails that provide substance abuse treatment programs). CCA charges from $37.99 to $47.98 per prisoner per day.

Losing the Class D prisoners “would be devastating,” stated Grayson County Detention Center employee Darwin Dennison. “We count on the money generated by the Class D program to operate our jail and the female facility. If that money were to dry up, it could cost jobs. The jail annex houses nothing but Class D inmates.”

The counties would also lose the prisoners’ labor, which has been used in work release programs to perform maintenance and clean-up at parks and government buildings.

“The best thing about having a Class D program is that we are able to save the cities and county government a lot of money by providing inmates to work,” said Dennison. “This proposal could eliminate that program and cost our county thousands of dollars in the process. Our program saves the cities and county hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor costs every year. If this passes, city and county governments would either have to start paying for labor they have been getting from inmates or cut back on their services.”

Of course there are other issues. If the counties are so dependent on free prisoner labor and state funding, doesn’t that give them an incentive to incarcerate more people? Isn’t there a conflict of interest when a governmental entity has a monetary motive for incarcerating its citizens? And what about the prisoner workers – shouldn’t they be paid something for their labor? Nonetheless, the focus of the public debate remains on the budgetary consequences for the county jails.

“According to people I have spoken with,” said Dennison, “Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson told the governor’s office that this proposal could bankrupt several county jails, but apparently Governor Steve Beshear is not concerned with the consequences.”

Kentucky jailers are fighting back, though. After Governor Beshear signed into law a sweeping corrections and sentencing reform bill, House Bill 463, on March 3, 2011, it was anticipated that the bill would negatively impact county jails. The solution to that problem, according to jail officials, is for the state not to renew its contracts with CCA, which expire on June 30, 2012, and instead transfer the prisoners currently held at CCA’s two private prisons in Kentucky to county jails.

“Both the state and the counties could save money by eliminating the private prisons contracts,” remarked Patrick Crowley, a public relations consultant hired to push the idea of letting the private prison contracts expire.

As for CCA, Mike Simpson, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association, said the company can always look else-where. “They have prisons all over the United States,” he noted. “There is no shortage of inmates in this country.”

However, removing state prisoners from the CCA facilities will be a hard sell, since the company’s two prisons in Kentucky, the Marion Adjustment Center and Otter Creek, employ 380 people; also, some of the prisoners currently housed at those facilities would not be eligible for transfers to county jails.

Sources: Grayson County News Gazette,,,

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