Kentucky plans to resume using private prisons by moving 800 inmates from the aging, overcrowded Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange to a prison in Lee County that has been closed for several years.
Private, for-profit prisons have a checkered history in Kentucky and elsewhere around the country, including a riot at the Lee County prison and sexual assaults of female inmates at a Floyd County prison owned by the same company, the Nashville-based CoreCivic.
Justice Secretary John Tilley said Thursday the state had taken pains to craft a contract with CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, designed to ward off problems and provide the same level of inmate services and public safety as at state-owned prisons.
CoreCivic will reopen the Lee County facility and have to maintain the same staffing levels that the state uses in its prisons, barring the company from cutting corners to pad its profit.
The state will do the background checks for all employees CoreCivic hires, and will be able to get rid of employees if needed, Tilley said.
Other terms include that the company will have to provide the same level of education, health and other programs available in state prisons, and must use the same vendors as the state.
The company can be fined $5,000 per day, per inmate for violations, and Tilley said he’s determined to collect if necessary.
“We intend to provide more oversight than they’ve seen in any facility that they manage in the country, or anywhere else,” Tilley said during an interview Thursday.
The state will move 800 general-population inmates from the Kentucky State Reformatory next March and close dorms there.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Erwin said the rest of the facility would remain open for inmates with medical and mental-health needs. There will be about 50 other inmates who will stay to do jobs in the prison.
Tilley said it had become expensive to maintain the prison because it is 80 years old.
In addition, unemployment is so low in the area that it has been hard for the state to hire corrections officers for the four state prisons in Oldham County.
The Department of Corrections has to bring in workers from elsewhere in the state to staff the facilities, resulting in added costs for overtime pay, travel and lodging.
Tilley said the state spent $6 million on overtime alone in fiscal year 2016 to staff the Oldham County facilities.
Because of those maintenance and staffing costs, moving the 800 male prisoners from the Kentucky State Reformatory will save the state money in fiscal year 2019, Tilley said.
The state will pay CoreCivic $57.68 a day for each inmate at the Lee Adjustment Center.
The state’s cost at a comparable state prison, the Green River Correctional Complex, is $64.09 a day, according to Brad Holajter, executive director of the cabinet.
State law requires a 10 percent savings to use a private prison.
Tilley said the state had no choice but to resume the use of private prisons because state prisons and dozens of county jails that house state prisoners were overcrowded.
Some county jails are more than 200 percent over capacity, with prisoners sleeping on mats on the floor.
The number of state prisoners dipped below 20,000 in 2013 after legislators approved changes aimed at saving money by cutting the prison population, including reduced penalties for some drug crimes and greater emphasis on getting people into drug treatment.
However, the numbers have gone back up, in part because of the state’s epidemic of abuse of opioids such as heroin.
The prison population was 22,089 in November 2015 and hit 24,367 this week.
CoreCivic owns prisons in Lee County, Floyd County and Marion County. Kentucky once housed prisoners in all three, but pulled out of Lee County in 2010, Floyd County in 2012 and Marion County in 2013.
Former Gov. Steve Beshear ordered all of Kentucky’s female inmates moved from CoreCivic’s Floyd County facility because of charges that guards had sexually abused inmates.
Inmates at the Lee County prison, many of them from Vermont, rioted in 2004, burning the administration building and severely damaging a housing unit.
A Vermont corrections official later said the inmates had complained about limited recreational time, smaller portions and less variety of food, and a disciplinary crackdown that the staff didn’t explain.
The Vermont and Kentucky corrections agencies did not have on-site monitors at the prison at the time.
Kentucky will have monitors in the prison frequently under the new contract, and also will have access to a full-time video feed of all areas of the prison that have cameras.