County officials have asked Gov. Matt Bevin to veto language in the state budget bill that would allow three private prisons to reopen in Kentucky.
The budget language would allow the state to recommission private prison contracts in Floyd, Marion and Lee counties if those counties’ jails become overpopulated.
The state already pays county jails to incarcerate some inmates who would otherwise go to state penitentiaries.
Renee Craddock, executive director of the Kentucky Jailers Association, said the private prison policy would shift that money away from counties.
“They are pulling revenue from counties at a time when counties don’t have a lot of revenue to spare,” she said.
Representatives from the Kentucky Jailers Association, the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky Judge/Executives Association and the Kentucky Association of Magistrates and Commissioners sent a joint letter to Bevin recently asking him to use his line-item veto power to excise the provision from the final budget bill.
The group estimates that it currently costs the state about $35 per day to house inmates in county jails versus $55 per day in private institutions.
The three prisons proposed to reopen are owned by Corrections Corporation of America, with which the state phased out contracts between 2010 and 2013 amid allegations of mismanagement at the institutions.
Otter Creek Correctional Center, located in Wheelwright (in Floyd County) and owned by CCA, closed after widespread reports of sexual abuse forced the state to transfer female inmates out of the institution.
In the letter, the associations say private prisons have already been given a chance to operate in Kentucky “and they failed to operate safely and in a fiscally sound manner.”
Craddock said the current budget language “ties the state’s hands” from bidding out a private prison contract to other companies.
“It is a contract to one company, and it doesn’t allow them to competitively bid the contract,” she said.
The private prison language was added in the state House of Representatives’ proposed version of the budget. In an email Tuesday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo defended the provision.
“We added this language in the House to give the state another option to avoid overcrowding issues that could lead to court action,” he said.
Stumbo also argued for protecting a plan in the budget that would parole infirm or aging state inmates and put them into long-term care facilities.
“I believe this language should remain as-is in the budget, because it is important that our corrections system have this added flexibility,” he said.
Kentucky typically houses Class C and Class D felons in county jails around the state.
According to the state’s most recent weekly jail population report, 62 of the state’s 128 county jails are overcrowded, ranging from with 237 beds needed at the Jefferson County Detention Center to 145 beds in Laurel County and 135 beds in Pulaski County.
Kentucky has 120 counties, and more than 40 of them do not have jails despite having elected jailers, according to a report by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The 128 reported by the state also include ancillary facilities, and some counties report more than one facility.
State inmates account for only a portion of those occupying county jails. Also included are those in “controlled intake” — offenders en route to prison or to local programs — and those convicted of misdemeanors.
Louisville Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton said he supports increasing the state’s prison capacity, even if it means turning to the private prison industry.
Earlier this week, Bolton announced the Louisville jail was overcrowded, and that he had been forced to house inmates in an aging facility that does not meet fire suppression standards.
“Those beds are full, there’s just nowhere to send them, that’s what’s creating this bottleneck,” Bolton said. “It’s all about there’s not enough capacity in the state to handle the load. However the state can assist in adding capacity, that’s what I’m supporting.”
The deadline for Bevin to veto part or all of the state budget is Wednesday.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop of WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this story.