Kentucky’s overcrowded county jails would get relief under two bills in Frankfort
FRANKFORT – Faced with dangerously overcrowded county jails across Kentucky — many of which house state inmates serving felony time — two lawmakers are sponsoring bills in the General Assembly that would make it easier to transfer prisoners to jails with open beds and to give larger state payments to jails that offer rehabilitation programs and more rigorous standards.
Nearly half of Kentucky’s 23,151 state inmates are serving their sentences in county jails, not in state prisons, alongside roughly 11,600 local inmates. Some jails hold twice as many people as they’re supposed to, with prisoners sleeping on concrete floors and in hallways and converted recreation rooms. Violence, filth and other problems occur as a result.
“It’s a huge, complex issue, so taking these little bites from the apple hopefully will start to alleviate the problem,” said state Rep. Deanna Frazier, R-Richmond.
The Madison County Detention Center in Frazier’s House district was overcrowded at 190 percent of capacity last week, with 184 beds and 350 inmates, including state inmates. However, not far away in Laurel County, the newly opened $25 million jail had 664 beds with 147 vacancies. Another new jail in the region, in Knox County, reported 66 vacancies.
Frazier’s House Bill 361 would allow the Kentucky Department of Corrections to transfer state prisoners out of county jails that have reached 150 percent of capacity if open beds can be found at another jail or a prison. The state’s per diem — its daily payment to the county jail for holding a state inmate — would go along with prisoners to the new facility.
“Our jail in Madison is constantly over capacity, as are about 20 others, while some jails have excess beds,” Frazier said. “We need to be humane in how our prisoners are treated. Just imagine if you were in that sort of situation, the stress of living like that.”
The second proposal is Senate Bill 128, which would increase the state’s basic $31.34 per diem for jails for the first time since 2008 if the jails could meet certain goals.
For example, improving their staff and facility standards enough to gain accreditation by various professional organizations and legal reviews would allow them to enter contract negotiations with the state Department of Corrections and request the much higher per diem that the state pays to private, for-profit prison contractor CoreCivic. That company collects a $64.09 per diem for a prison it lets the state use in Lee County.
“The jails have been asking us, ‘Can’t you pay us more, can’t you pay us what you pay the private prisons?’ And we’re saying, ‘OK, but the private prisons are accredited, so if you can do that, we’ll pay you more, too,’” said state Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, the bill’s sponsor.
“There are probably 10 jails in the state that could meet these criteria right off the bat, and a few more that could follow shortly behind,” Higdon said.
Big Sandy Detention Center board chairman Daniel Castle was not available for comment on the overcrowding in his facility but BSRDC has been plagued with excessive inmates and has attempted to start a rehab program since Castle took over last year. There has been talk about Addiction Recovery Center based in Louisa offering treatment to the inmates but the program has not begun yet.
Also, jails that offer approved rehabilitation programs — such as education, job training and addiction treatment — would get $2 to $10 added to their per diem for state inmates, depending on whether the instructors had relevant college degrees. Many jails presently offer little to nothing in the way of quality rehabilitation programs, even for state inmates who might be held there for years.
“Right now, we’ve basically incentivized the jails to get by as cheaply as they can,” Higdon said.
“I’d like to see us pay the jails more to do more,” the senator said. “If you just warehouse felons for a year or two and then release them back out onto the streets without them so much as getting their GED, you’ve pretty much guaranteed they’re going to get locked up again. In fact, they’re probably coming out even harder than they went in because they just spent all that time sleeping on a concrete floor in an institution that’s packed at 200 percent of capacity.”
Higdon’s bill does not yet have a fiscal note estimating its cost to the state. Gov. Andy Beshear recently said Kentucky expects to pay $115.3 million in additional prison costs just to finish the current fiscal year and make it through the next two-year budget, due to a steadily rising inmate population, crumbling state-owned prisons and difficulty hiring and retaining corrections officers.
Both jail-related bills have been assigned to their chambers’ respective judiciary committees for consideration.
J. Barry Brady, elected jailer in Marion County for the last 17 years, said the jails welcome any relief as they struggle to help growing waves of prisoners who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill, in addition to holding state inmates for whom there is no room in the prison system.
“The biggest challenge for us now is the complexity of this job and the responsibility that has been handed to us,” Brady said. “There hasn’t been any kind of incentive money made available for us to meet standards. I see it as necessary.”
By John Cheves