Overpopulation creates problems for Kentucky’s jails

MCCRACKEN COUNTY, KY — Inmate overpopulation is a problem in jails across Kentucky, and McCracken County is no exception.

“We’re not like a hotel, where we can put up a vacancy sign. We’ve got to keep taking them,” McCracken County Jail Lt. Tray English said. “Every jail right now that I know of is in the same shape we are in. We’re full.”

There are 24,000 inmates in Kentucky, and 11,000 of those are in county jails like the one where English works. He has been working at the McCracken County Jail for about 10 years.

Two-hundred pages of documents from the past three inspections of McCracken County Jail done by the Department of Corrections Chris Holt show a rise in inmates over the years.

There are 128 beds in an annex building, but that building is restricted custody, which means lighter security. Only certain inmates can stay there, so even if there are 71 open beds inside the annex, there are still inmates inside the main jail in an overcrowded cell.

“They’re fighting for space,” English said. “It’s hard for everybody. You have 35 individual worlds bottled up in one bottle there.” Tensions run high in cells packed with inmates.

The main jail building is made for 342 inmates. There are 440 inmates in these cells. “We’ve got more inmates than we got beds,” he said.

Beds are supposed to be in cells, but there are a lot of extra mattresses on the ground in the main area of the jail. There are 32 inmates in a 14-person cell, leaving other inmates to sleep on the floor.

Makeshift bunk beds have been moved in the cells as more inmates enter the jail. English said, because every jail seems to be full, they don’t have the option of transferring inmates. That is how problems start.

“Gambling is prohibited, but whenever you take a bunch of inmates, they don’t always follow the rules,” English said. He said inmates are trading commissary items with each other for a bunk bed. While some resources are low, he believes the inmates are still getting what they need, including necessary health care and three meals a day.

Each inmate costs about $14,700 a year for county jails with state inmates, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections annual report in 2016. That means the overcrowding problem is affecting your tax dollars.

“There is going to have to be reform to our justice system,” said English. “Changing the laws so people are going to jail is not the answer.”

There were 497 inmates in McCracken County Jail on May 5. That would be more than $7 million a year for taxpayers. As the ratio of corrections officers to inmates decreases, English said Jailer Tonya Ray is working on changing shifts around to put more officers on the same shift for safety reasons.

The problem is statewide, and the organization Kentucky Smart On Crime organization predicts incarceration rates in Kentucky will grow by 19 percent in the next 10 years. The organization says that could cost you an additional $600 million.

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