The United States holds only 5% of the world’s population, but its prisons and jails hold around 25% of the entire world’s incarcerated, with over 2 million people in prison. Kentucky alone holds 25,000 state prisoners making it ninth in the nation per capita and number two for women. It is projected that Kentucky’s prisons and state jails will completely run out of space by May of 2019, with almost all of them operating over capacity already. Squeezing that many inmates into 76 jails and 12 prisons causes many issues, the most important being overcrowding. Overcrowding leads to horrible prison conditions and increase in inmate crime, with one of the main reasons for overcrowding being the opioid and drug abuse epidemic in Kentucky.
Even though some may argue against prison reform due to the fact that the inmates are the ones to blame for why they are in prison in the first place and should suffer their own consequences, the conditions of Kentucky’s prisons can be described as inhumane. Thousands of inmates participate in prison labor only earning $1.00 an hour, and some make as little as 4 cents an hour. There is also excessive use of solitary confinement; it is not uncommon for an inmate to serve their entire life sentence in a 7ft by 11ft cell with no sunlight and only being allowed out of their cell an hour a day for exercise. Some inmates, however, are not as lucky to see the light of day for years. In addition, Prisons are given a certain amount of money to take care of their inmates. Once these prisons go over capacity, they are not given more money; they have to make do with what they have.
This means decreasing food proportions, medicine, medical supplies, etc. Often times inmates are failed to be given necessary care for illnesses due to shortage of supplies. According to Insider Louisville’s local and state issue reporter Jonathan Meador: Kentucky Department of Corrections compliance inspections obtained by Insider Louisville through an open records request show that, from 2015 to 2017, state inspectors found multiple instances of Louisville Metro Department of Corrections jails violating state compliance standards. The most common issues reported were a lack of adequate hot and cold running water, dormitories suffering plumbing issues and chronic overcrowding in three of its correctional facilities. Even with these violations, it is difficult for a facility to be shut down or given the proper care and living requirements.
They are still allowed to operate when they violate state compliance standards because there is nowhere else for these inmates to go. Many of the facilities have also resorted to double bunking inmates as well as making inmates sleep on the floor: “The state’s prisons are full, with officials resorting to double-bunking inmates in rec rooms and any other space they can find. It’s worse at county jails, which house state inmates convicted of low-level felonies” (Beam). Kentucky’s jails and prisons have resorted to housing inmates in every spare room they have because there is no other option. This takes away the time inmates are given to exercise because the rooms are now occupied by bunks and other inmates. Many of them exercise to stay healthy and focused as well as let their anger out. Taking this away means these inmates are potentially sitting in one room 24 hours a day and only coming out to eat. Not only does overcrowding cause awful living conditions, but it is also a factor in the increase crime rate in Kentucky’s prisons and jails. As these prisons continue to grow over a safe capacity number, the ratio of guards to inmates becomes smaller.
Robert Morgan, a former inmate at Kentucky State Reformatory, wrote a letter to former corrections commissioner Rodney Ballard and Gov. Matt Bevin about living in a prison that was being run by its inmates instead of the officials in it and begged for protection out of fear of being harmed by other inmates in the jail. Andrew Wolfson, a senior legal issues and federal court reporter for The Courier-Journal, shed light on an assault towards Morgan that took place two months after he wrote the letter: But on Sept. 11, 2016, with the prison still over its capacity, inmates chased Morgan through the prison yard and to his cell, where he was beaten and stabbed 17 times. He suffered a concussion and a collapsed lung, as well as permanent injuries. In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Morgan and another inmate who was beaten into unconsciousness five days earlier charge they were both victims of dangerous prison under-staffing. The suit says both corrections officers and inmates live and work in a chaotic environment where “violent inmates prey on vulnerable and isolated” prisoners and “collect debts or dish out prison discipline with vicious assaults”.
According to state records, the Kentucky State Reformatory held 1,173 inmates the day Robert Morgan was assaulted, which is 82 inmates over its capacity. Violent crimes between inmates in these facilities can be prevented by increasing the officer to inmate ratio and hiring more correctional officers. In addition, staffing facilities with an official or officials that can ensure the inmates’ voices are heard could also help stop the crimes before they happen thus lowering the crime rate.
Majority of overcrowding in Kentucky’s prisons can be contributed to the opioid crisis and drug abuse epidemic: “Corrections Commissioner Jim Erwin said 19 jails are at 150 percent capacity and four jails are at 200 percent capacity. In Bell County, tucked in the Appalachian mountains in one of the areas hardest hit with opioid addiction, the local jail is at 300 percent capacity” (Beam). Stricter drug laws made in the early 2000’s to help fight the drug epidemic in Kentucky has landed many non-violent criminals lengthy prison sentences. These laws have also made it easier for a previous felon to end up back behind bars. Federal offenses such as strict liability can convict someone of breaking the law even if they did not know a law was being broken making them guilty by association.
Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley proposed reforms that would make being convicted of a felony in Kentucky more difficult by making some possession charges become misdemeanors and raising the theft felony to $2,000 instead of the current $500, which is one of the lowest in the country. If these changes were to go into effect, it is estimated that they would eliminate at least 79% of Kentucky’s predicted inmate growth (Beam). Another way to help fix overcrowding due to the drug/opioid epidemic would be rehabilitation programs for drug abuse and mental health: “The bottom line… is that drug and mental health treatment is more successful and less expensive than prison time” (Smith). Rehabilitation programs would help decrease the number of repeat felons by reducing the number of people who leave prison just to end up back behind bars. In conclusion, there is much that needs to be done to fix Kentucky’s judicial system. Spreading awareness of the overpopulated prisons and the action that can be taken to fix them is a step in the right direction. Inmates are humans, and they deserve to be treated as such.