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Kentucky: More on private prison opposition.

Prison privatization plan draws opposition
By Jared Nelson
August 04, 2004

A Frankfort proposal toward prison privatization is a bad move for the state, a group of current corrections employees and supporting state legislators said this week.

Larry Bland, president of the Barkley Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, met with fellow corrections employees and state Reps. Mike Cherry and J.R. Gray in Eddyville Monday to speak out against a plan by some state officials to put prison services out for bid to private contractors.

At the beginning of the month, the state Department of Corrections began soliciting proposals from firms interested in taking over food service operations at state correctional facilities, including the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville and the West Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia.

Bland said the privatization trend could grow to include the rest of the prisons’ employees, including correctional officers.

Such a move would negatively impact the employees involved, the inmates and the communities involved.

“They are prisons for profit,” he said, adding that private prisons’ costs were often more expensive, because a profit margin was added to the costs of prison operation.

Bland also said private prisons may also offer lower wages and fewer medical benefits than those operated by the government.

Having those lower-paid and less-trained employees sends prison conditions downward, he said, citing various reports of riots, assaults, crimes and other incidents in private prisons across the U.S.

The legislators in attendance supported the employee opposition to the prisons’ privatization.

Cherry, representative for the 4th House District, which covers Caldwell, Crittenden and Livingston counties, as well as a portion of McCracken County, said he grew up as a “big house brat,” with his father serving as an official at the prison.

“He had the pride that he was doing something for society,” Cherry said.

He and Gray, who serves Lyon, Marshall and McCracken counties in the 6th House District, have acquired the reputation of “the correctional workers’ guys in western Kentucky,” he said.

Both, he added, stand against the idea of prison privatization.

“We are bound and determined that you’re not going to privatize any of the facilities at the Kentucky State Penitentiary,” he said.

The move toward privatization can be held off as long as Democrats have control of at least one branch of Congress or the governor’s office.

Democrats currently occupy 64 of the 100 state House seats.

The prison issue is one of the major issues dividing the House and the Senate in their budget negotiations.

The House version of the budget prohibits prison privatization, while the Senate version allows it. Cherry said he expected the House to insist on the privatization ban’s inclusion.

“I don’t see us ever, ever giving in on that issue,” he said.

Despite the differences, he said he felt a budget would be passed by January or February at the latest.

The proposals solicited by Corrections Commissioner John Rees would most likely not take effect by then, Cherry said.

“It’s an argument that I don’t think he can sell.”

Gray said he and Cherry would not back down from their position.

“As long as Mike and I are there...we’re going to fight this thing to the end,” he said.

Bland proposed taking inmates out of privatized facilities and putting them in a new, unused facility in Elliot County.

Lawrence Newsome, a 27-year corrections veteran, said the state was paying counties astronomical rates to house state inmates, when those inmates could be housed in the Elliot County facility and served by trained prison personnel.

Jail beds could then be opened to class D felons and misdemeanor violators, the purpose they were intended to serve, he said. “It’s time that Frankfort understands that.”

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