Amid overcrowding, state to reopen private prison

By Adam Beam
Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky is getting back into the private prison business because state officials say they have nowhere else to house their surging inmate population.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley signed a contract late last week with CoreCivic, the Tennessee-based private corrections company formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

The state plans to move about 800 inmates from the 80-year-old Kentucky State Reformatory to the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville over the next four months.

Kentucky had inmates in three private CoreCivic prisons as recently as 2008. But the state let those contracts expire after years of problems including allegations of sexual abuse and a prison riot in 2004. The state closed the last of its private prisons in 2013, when its inmate population dipped below 20,000 following legislation designed to put nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of behind bars.

But since then, Kentucky has faced a wave of opioid addiction that led to a record number of overdose deaths.

The state legislature has responded by toughening penalties against drug dealers and others. That helped boost the state’s prison population to an all-time high of more than 24,600 inmates earlier this year. All of Kentucky’s prisons are full, and so are the 70 county jails that house state inmates.

“This was the only option,” Tilley said.

Private prisons have been controversial nationwide in recent years. The Obama administration had directed U.S. officials to phase out the use of private federal prisons following a harshly critical government audit.

But under the Trump administration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last February signaled his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons.

Kentucky has had problems with CoreCivic in the past.

The state recommended a $10,000 fine against the company following a 2004 riot at the Lee Adjustment Center where inmates set fire to an administration building and ripped up sinks and toilets.

And in 2010, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear removed all female inmates from the Otter Creek Correctional Correctional Center following allegations of sexual abuse of prisoners and a sex scandal involving guards.

More recently, an audit of CoreCivic’s prisons in Tennessee found the company was operating some prisons without enough officers and withheld many of its staffing records from state auditors.

The state will get final say on the people CoreCivic hires, and will run background checks on all applicants.

If the company violates any of those terms, the state could fine them $5,000 per day, per inmate, per offense.

The state could also withhold payments as punishment.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company is committed to reducing recidivism.

And in addition to Kentucky’s accountability standards, Burns noted the company is also under the scrutiny of the American Correctional Association, which he says “thoroughly audits our buildings, staff and services.”

The contract will cost about $16.8 million per year, or $57.68 per inmate per day. It costs the state $64.09 per inmate per day at a comparable facility.

Tilley called the contract a “short term fix.” He said he still plans to lobby the legislature to reform its criminal code so it will send fewer people to prison.