Kentucky Reluctantly Returns to Prison Privatization
Overcrowding in Kentucky’s corrections system has spurred renewed interest in private prisons. Despite abandoning privately-operated prisons five years ago due to a number of problems, including sexual abuse of female prisoners by private prison guards, Kentucky officials have returned to privatization to relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons.
“This is simply a move we are forced to make,” said Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley. “We hope this is a release valve.”
The state’s prison population exploded from 22,089 in November 2015 to 24,367 as of February 2018. The opioid epidemic has been blamed for the increase.
Kentucky turned to CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, for more prison beds. The company owns facilities in Lee, Floyd and Marion counties.
At one time, Kentucky housed prisoners at all three facilities; it pulled out of Lee County in 2010, Floyd County in 2012 and Marion County in 2013.
Governor Steve Beshear had ordered female prisoners removed from the CoreCivic-operated Otter Creek Correctional Center in 2010 following reports that guards were sexually abusing prisoners. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.16; Oct. 2009, p.40]. The Lee Adjustment Center was the site of a 2004 riot.
For state officials, using the vacant private prisons was seen as the only viable option.
“I’d rather we not need them at all ... I think they’ve put it off as long as they can to try to not have to take this route,” said state Senator Whitney Westerfield.
In November 2017, Kentucky entered into a contract with CoreCivic that ends on June 30, 2019, with options for two additional one-year periods. The company receives $57.68 per prisoner per day – about 10 percent less than the $64.09 rate at a comparable state prison – to house around 800 prisoners at the Lee Adjustment Center. The per diem rate is higher than the $31.34 daily cost of holding state prisoners in county jails.
“Utilizing private prisons dramatically increases the cost,” noted state Senator Chris McDaniel, who chairs the Senate’s budget committee. “If we can house folks for $31 per day versus $58 per day, we just need to do it,” he added. “As we continue to go down that road, certainly we have to look at our lowest cost providers first.”
The contract, Tilley said, has significant safeguards to dissuade CoreCivic from engaging in its typical cost-cutting business practices.
“I think it’s safe to say we know exactly who we are dealing with,” he stated. “And to their credit, they agreed to every demand we placed upon them.”
Kentucky has live access to security video at the Lee prison, can conduct background checks on CoreCivic employees and is able to perform unannounced, unrestricted inspections. Contract violations can result in $5,000 fines per offense, per day.
“We intend to provide more oversight than they’ve seen in any facility that they manage in the country, or anywhere else,” Tilley said.
The decision to contract with CoreCivic given the company’s dismal track record was not popular among prisoners’ rights advocates.
“We don’t think they deserve another chance,” said Kate Miller with the ACLU of Kentucky. “It just doesn’t make sense from our perspective to put people into a system that profits as a result of them being incarcerated. It’s a perverse incentive and that undermines our trust in the system overall.”
State lawmakers eventually reached the same conclusion. In March 2018, budget negotiations in the state House and Senate ended with a decision not to fund any additional contracts for private prison beds, despite overcrowding in state facilities.
Sources: Louisville Courier Journal, www.insiderlouisville.com, www.kentucky.com, www.usnews.com