Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Opinion

June 30, 2013

A wise move

Kentucky ends three decades of using private prisons

ASHLAND — For the first time in three decades, there soon will be no state prisoners held in private, for-profit prisons. Good. We have always found it disturbing and a sign of poor management on the part of state government that private companies that must earn a profit to survive can operate prisons at a lower cost than state government can. 

The Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet announced Tuesday it is not renewing a contract with private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America to operate the 826-bed Marion Adjustment Center in St. Mary in Marion County. The state’s contract with the Nashville, Tenn.-based company expires today, and the state will have 120 days to move all inmates to other facilities. The state plans to move the 794 state inmates in Marion to other state prisons, county jails or half-way houses.

Kentucky officials estimate the state can save $1.5 million to $2.5 million per year by not renewing the contract. If the state does not realize that kind of savings, there is something wrong with its management skills.

The move is the latest in a series since 2008. At that point, Kentucky had inmates in three prisons run by CCA. The state in 2010 pulled out of Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, an 800-bed facility that still houses inmates from Vermont, and in 2012 from Otter Creek Correctional Center, a 600-bed facility in Wheelwright in far eastern Kentucky that’s currently vacant.

A spokesman for CCA, Steve Owen, called the move “disappointing.” He said the company had no indication the state was making the move and “made every effort” to meet cost-savings measures. Right now, the priority was the 166 employees, he said. To be sure, the loss of that many jobs in a rural area will have a tremendous impact on the local economy, but those jobs are needlessly costing the state money.

Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown said changes mandated by the landmark criminal justice reform law approved by the 2011 Kentucky General Assembly eliminated the need for the state to use the private prison. That law mandated changes in the drug laws and reduced prison time for low-risk, nonviolent drug criminals caught with small amounts of drugs — all designed to reduce its prison population.

Brown said inmates currently enrolled in substance abuse programs at Marion will either complete the program before being transferred or will be placed in a similar program elsewhere to continue treatment.

“One of the major considerations in making this decision was whether we could continue to meet the treatment needs of inmates struggling with substance abuse issues, and that has been assured,” Brown said.

CCA owns the facility, which opened in 1980. The company will determine what will become of the employees working there.

Kentucky paid CCA $21 million in fiscal 2010 to operate Otter Creek, along with the Marion Adjustment Center and Lee Adjustment Center.

Kentucky has run into issues with CCA facilities in the past. Gov. Steve Beshear ordered all female inmates transferred from Otter Creek in 2010 after a sex scandal involving guards and allegations of sexual abuse of inmates at the facility. The state transferred 400 female inmates to Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia and moved men into Otter Creek.

Hawaii also removed 168 female inmates in 2009, sending them to a prison in Arizona. Multiple lawsuits were filed over the sex accusations. Most were dismissed.

Inmates at Lee Adjustment Center rioted in 2004 after allegations of inmate abuse and mistreatment increased and visits from friends and family were cut back, and CCA is being sued by a group of shift supervisors at Marion Adjustment Center who allege the company forced them to work extra hours and denied them overtime. CCA has denied the allegations. The lawsuit is pending in federal court in Louisville.

Those internal issues provide added reason for the state to cease turning the incarceration of its prisoners to private companies. But the main reason for ceasing use of the private prisons is the money it saves. The state should always be able to operate a prison for less money than a for-profit company.

CCA still houses prisoners from Vermont and other states at the facilities it owns in Kentucky, but that’s an issue for the politicians and residents of those states who are exporting their inmates far from their homes.

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