Community Health

State corrections officials could have brought in generators earlier during an August power outage that left hundreds of people incarcerated at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women without air conditioning, but they declined due to cost, records show.

At the time, daytime temperatures approached 100 degrees and the area was under active heat advisories. 

WFPL News obtained internal emails that provide insights into officials’ decision-making during the outage. 

The Kentucky Department of Corrections could have temporarily fixed the issue by acquiring emergency generators three days into the outage. Instead, emails show officials opted to shop around. 

On Saturday, Aug. 28, the department received estimates for repairs and temporary relief. 

“We also received a proposal to add emergency generators for four buildings but it’s too high $82,500 for 14 days,” Gunvant Shah, chief engineer with Kentucky’s Department of Corrections, said in an email. “[The construction superintendent] has started calling several vendors and will meet them at KCIW on Monday morning.”

That left the majority of the Shelby County facility’s housing units without cool air during extreme summer heat for another three days.

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In late August, two people incarcerated at KCIW described uninhabitable conditions and what they felt was lack of concern for their wellbeing. They said at least one incarcerated woman required medical attention as a result of the heat. Prison officials said at the time that staff regularly checked on residents and that those experiencing health complications were housed and treated in the facility’s medical wing, which had air conditioning because it was running on a dedicated generator. 

When the power went out on Aug. 25, the prison kept the lights on with generators it already had on hand. But there were no generators to power air conditioning in some housing units until nearly a week into the outage. Officials ultimately got generators for affected buildings and cool air resumed, though records show they got the first one for the prison’s administration building. 

The power outage affected four of six housing units at the state prison, which houses 683 women. During that time, the prison suspended its uniform policy and allowed the incarcerated women to wear T-shirts and shorts. KCIW officials also handed out bottled water on two occasions and gave the incarcerated women four scoops of ice per day. 

Addressing the problem

WFPL obtained the records in a request made to the corrections department last month for incident reports, memos and other records related to the power outage. 

This outage was at least the third time in six years the prison lost power due to the same electrical malfunction: a main switchgear failure. 

DOC director of operations Janet Conover acknowledged the need to fund that repair in an email to prison and state staff. She said KCIW’s six-year plan ⁠— developed last November ⁠— estimated replacing the main switchgear would cost $824,000. 

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A colleague shared in a separate email that a repair would cost about $180,000.

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Lisa Lamb, a state DOC spokesperson, said in an email to WFPL this week that KCIW “continues to work on a plan” to fix the longstanding electrical issue, and the faulty switchgear is still in place.

The prison spent $10,410 on Aug. 31 in material and labor costs to install the generator for the prison’s administration building. The state didn’t provide purchase records for the generators acquired for other affected buildings, including housing units. 

On Aug. 31, six days after the power failure, friends and family of two incarcerated women told WFPL that housing units received generators and were by that time receiving cool air. A DOC records official did not respond to a follow-up question about why relevant documentation was not provided.

Misrepresented timeline  

Other internal emails show the spokesperson downplayed the problem in communications with reporters. 

Though records show corrections officials said internally that the outage occurred on Aug. 25, Lamb gave statements to reporters during the crisis and the following week that said it started a day later.

In response to WFPL’s queries this week about the contradicting timeline, Lamb offered an explanation for the discrepancy between the public and private communications. 

“The power outage at KCIW occurred late Wednesday night, Aug. 25; however, KCIW maintenance staff did not determine it was a failure that could not be quickly resolved until Thursday morning,” she said. 

In answering why the state’s DOC decided to postpone getting generators for the prison’s remaining buildings, including residence halls, Lamb blamed the delay on supply shortages from increased demand as a result of Hurricane Ida

When KCIW lost power, officials rescinded visitation privileges, citing security precautions. 

Lamb said the facility’s main power was restored on Sept. 7, but visiting hours are still suspended, pending the resolution of 23 COVID-19 cases that were active in the facility as of Sunday. 

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.