Members of the Kentucky Jailers Association want the state to cancel its contracts with two private prisons next summer and move some of the inmates to county jails.

Since the Department of Corrections pays jails for every state inmate they house, this could help jails throughout the state reduce their budget deficits, jailers argue.

For instance, Christian County Jail’s operating costs exceeded its revenue by $1.2 million during the last fiscal year. Jailer Brad Boyd said an extra 105 state inmates would close this gap.

The jailers association recently hired a publicity firm to help campaign for this proposal.

But corrections officials say the proposal wouldn’t work so smoothly. Kentucky has thorny laws dictating which inmates may be housed at county jails and which must live at private or state-run prisons, said Todd Henson, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. Not all the inmates at the private prisons are eligible for transfers to county jails.

On the other hand, a state-run prison in Mercer County, called Northpoint Training Center, plans to reopen a section that was damaged in a 2009 fire — meaning 558 more beds will become available next spring.

Combined with a new law that promises to reduce Kentucky’s overall inmate population by changing sentencing requirements, officials believe this may eliminate the need for a private prison by next summer.

The contract for one private prison, Marion Adjustment Center, in Marion County, came up for renewal on Aug. 1. The state extended the contract for 11 months instead of the standard two years.

The other private prison, Otter Creek Correctional Center, is in Floyd County. Now both contracts will come up for renewal on June 30, 2012.

An industry giant

Corrections Corporation of America, usually known as CCA, contracts with the state to operate both private prisons. The state housed inmates at a third CCA prison in Beattyville until June 2010.

Founded in 1983, CCA operates more than 60 facilities and oversees roughly 75,000 inmates, according to its website. This makes it the fifth largest corrections system in the nation, behind only the federal government and three states, the website states.

The company reported a net income of $157.2 million last year.

Kentucky pays for Marion Adjustment Center to house at least 794 inmates every day, as a requirement of its contract. It pays $37.99 per day for minimum-security inmates and $47.98 for medium-security inmates.

The state pays for Otter Creek to house at least 600 inmates every day, at a rate of $44.26 each.

Altogether, Kentucky pays CCA a minimum of roughly $21.6 million each year in per diem fees.

Budgetary boon

The state prison in Mercer County, Northpoint Training Center, could once hold 1,256 inmates. The prison sent away roughly 700 inmates after a large share of the building was burned in a 2009 fire. It now holds 698 inmates, a Northpoint spokeswoman said. It will likely reopen a section with the remaining 558 beds in the spring, she said.

If the state moves 558 inmates from private prisons to Northpoint, it would leave at least 836 inmates between the two private prisons.

Additionally, the total number of state prisoners will likely drop by that time. At this year’s General Assembly, legislators passed a new law — House Bill 463 — which mandates alternative sentencing for many drug offenders.

After these changes, the state might not need the two private prisons any longer, said Mike Simpson, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association.

Instead of canceling just one CCA contract, Simpson hopes the state will cancel them both and send the extra inmates to county jails.

County jails charge $31.34 per inmate every day — $6.65 less than CCA’s fee for minimum-security inmates. In a year, this comes to a $2,247.25 discount per inmate. If the state moved 400 inmates from Marion to county jails, it would spend $898,900 less in per diem fees.

Simpson said Kentucky has 76 to 78 full-service county jails. They all house criminals convicted of misdemeanors and defendants awaiting trial, but they can all house state inmates as well, Simpson said.

On the other hand, CCA’s per diem fee covers a broad range of services: substance abuse rehabilitation, education programs, faith-based programs and most medical treatment, for instance, said CCA spokesman Steve Owen.

Jennifer Brislin, spokeswoman for Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety cabinet, said the county jails’ per diem does not cover all those services. For example, jails that run substance abuse treatment programs receive an extra $9 per inmate every day.

Ultimately, the question of which option costs less might depend on what services inmates need.

Regardless, jailers argue the state should send that money to the counties instead of paying an out-of-state corporation.

As of Wednesday morning, Christian County Jail had 585 inmates, leaving it with 128 empty beds. Based on final numbers from the 2010-11 fiscal year, filling 105 more beds with state inmates would close the jail’s budget gap, Boyd said.

Weighing factors

Brislin pointed out that when the state renewed its contract for the Marion Adjustment Center, it reduced the number of inmates to be housed there. The state previously paid for at least 815 inmates per day, and now it pays for at least 794.

The state must also consider the need for substance abuse treatment programs, Brislin said. The Marion Adjustment Center has several hundred inmates enrolled in its program, and the treatment programs at county jails may not have space for those inmates, Brislin said.

Next year corrections officials will review its prison population and trend projections. These will factor into its decision of whether to renew the CCA contracts, Brislin said.

If both private prisons shut down, approximately 380 employees would lose their jobs.

CCA estimates that the Marion Adjustment Center saved the local community $100,000 last year by using inmate labor for community work projects. The prison pays about $200,000 annually in property taxes and more than $900,000 in utilities, Owen said.

However, if Kentucky withdrew its inmates from Marion and Otter Creek, CCA could use those facilities to house inmates from other states. The company sometimes uses this practice — for instance, it houses Vermont inmates at its prison in Beattyville, Ky.

Owen said CCA has contracted with Kentucky since 1998.

“We look forward to continuing that long-standing partnership,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Between now and next summer, the jailers association will try to rally support for ending that partnership. Members will request permission to speak at fiscal court meetings throughout the state, and as June 30 approaches, they may raise a delegation for a trip to Frankfort, Simpson said.

REACH NICK TABOR at 270-887-3231 or ntabor@kentuckynewera.com.

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