Overview of Kentucky’s Prison and Jail System (2024)

By Kyle Ellison

October 12, 2020

I attended last year’s Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum in Louisville and appreciated the opportunity to discuss re-entry issues with legislators and people working on the front lines of criminal justice reform. (https://www.kentuckycjf.org/). This brought back thoughts and feelings from my years with Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) as a Probation and Parole Officer in Louisville (1972-1981) and a jail and prison personnel Training Officer (1981-1988). At the Forum, I wished I had an overview of our jail and prison system along with a list of reference links to hand out to participants. I wrote this piece with that in mind. The public is uninformed about these issues and I hope this can be an insider’s guide.

Sentencing Reform

Since 1980, increased length of sentences has caused Kentucky’s state prison population to increase 600%. “Tough on Crime” wins elections but we have become tough on criminals instead of tough on the systemic conditions that foster crime. This process is eloquently presented in several papers by UK Law Professor Robert G Lawson who wrote the Kentucky Penal Code in 1974.

After Professor Lawson’s articles were published, Kentucky was one of five states that increased its inmate population by 10% from 2008 to 2018. During this same time period there were 12 to 19 states that reduced inmate populations by 10% (LA, MS, AL NC, SC, FL, TX, IL, MD, NY, NJ, CA, MI, CO, IN, VT, CT, HI, AK. (Note: Studies have variations depending on dates included)

Kentucky has the highest Per Capita Incarceration Rate (PCIR) of all the states that surround it. We are in the top ten states and rising. If every U.S. state were a country, Kentucky would have the 9th highest incarceration rate in the world.

In the 1930’s 60% of Kentucky’s inmates were serving sentences of five years or less. In 1962, there were 2400 inmates at Kentucky State Reformatory. Sixty-five percent of these inmates had sentences of 5 years or less. Eighty-six percent of new admissions to Kentucky State Reformatory that year had sentences of five years or less. (It is interesting to note that Kentucky’s inmate population fell more than 25% from 1940 to 1970.) Today, the average sentence is 14 years and only 23% of inmates have a sentence of 5 years or less. Most of these (Class D) inmates are serving in overcrowded county jails that lack space for programs facilitating rehabilitation.

County Jails

County jail population has risen 800% since 1980. In February 2020 there were over 24,000 inmates in county jails. One third of county jails (25) were operating at an average 170% above capacity. Another third of the jails were operating at an average 128% over capacity. Even after COVID commutations, there are 8750 inmates serving state felony sentences in county jails. This is 47% of the total county jail population and about 45% of the total KDOC prison population. During the pandemic jails have reduced inmate population by 25% however, current Jail Count Sheets show that 39 of 76 jails are overcapacity. Eight jails are operating at 150% or more; eleven others are 120% or more over capacity. If horses were treated this way there would be public outrage.

Kentucky is the only state that elects Jailers. One third (40) jailers have no jail but are elected and paid anyway. Jailers hire lobbyists and are the dominant political power players. They have a vested financial interest in keeping inmates for state and federal authorities who pay rent for each inmate. Kentucky has not built a new state prison since 2005. Many counties have opened new jails to meet the state’s need for bedspace. From 2014 to 2017 county jails added 2,512 beds. There are 11 jails with a bed capacity over 400. Louisville Metro Jail is the second largest incarceration facility in the state with 1791 beds. Total bed space for all state prisons is 12,563. (This figure includes 866 beds at CoreCivic’s Lee County prison). Jails have 21,295 total beds. Only one other state has a higher percentage of state inmates housed in county jails. At last year’s Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum in Louisville, State Senator Jimmy Higdon stated that county jailers were the main opposition to expanded use of private prisons. Prisoners have become commodities. KDOC seems unable to regulate the jails that choose to be grossly overcrowded.

Federal Inmates-Per diem Rates

There are five federal prisons in Kentucky which hold a total of 6,000 inmates. Twenty county jails hold a total of 1900 additional federal inmates. Almost 1400 of these are housed in seven jails. This is a number greater than the largest federal prison here. The per diem rate for federal inmates is about 60% higher than the state pays. (State per diem is $31 to $41 and has not been increased in 15 years). These are the inmates who generate income to pay off loans for the new jails and help the county budget.

Women Inmates

For each woman inmate serving time in a state prison there are 2 women serving state time in a county jail. Oklahoma is the only state with a higher PCIR rate for women. The League of Women Voters is looking at this issue.

Opportunities for women inmates in jails are far from equal. This is pointed out in Legislative Research Commission Report #430

Racial Breakdown

Kentucky’s population is 8.3% Black. KDOC inmate population is 22% Black. This is almost triple the per capita incarceration rate (PCIR) of the white population. In Alabama, the Black prison population is double that of the general population. Black inmates in Kentucky comprise only 12% of those serving 5 years or less in a county jail which indicates that Black offenders get longer sentences. From 1879 to 1913 our inmate population was over 50% Black. This change occurred just in time for the “Contract System” (1880 to 1891) which was worse than slavery. In the 1930’s the number of Black inmates was 5 times higher than their proportion of the population. Kentucky State Reformatory was not integrated until 1977.

Kentucky State Budget

NOTE: Budget figures for the following are found in the Justice and Public Safety section of the Kentucky State Budget. Pages 232-238. The total budget for Justice and Public Safety is $1.3 billion. (page 219). KDOC accounts for the largest proportion of this figure. (https://osbd.ky.gov/Publications/Documents/Budget%20Documents/2020-2021%20Budget%20of%20the%20Commonwealth/2020-2021%20BOC%20Volume%20I%20-%20FINAL%20-%20%28Part%20B%29.pdf)

Probation and Parole

Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) spends about 9.4% of its $663 million budget on probation and parole supervision and other community programs. The number of people under supervision is 65,000. Between 45 and 64 percent of our inmates come from this group.

Mental Health Services

KDOC spends 1.4% of its budget ($9,635.000) on meeting the mental health needs of inmates. Studies show that half the inmate population suffers from serious psychological distress. It might be interesting to note that during the inmate population crisis of the mid 1920’s to mid 1930’s Kentucky opened two large mental hospitals (Central State, near Louisville and Kentucky State Hospital near Danville). The latter was converted to at state prison named Northpoint in the early 1980’s. We are treating mental illness with police and prisons today.

Vocational and Academic Education in KDOC Prisons

KDOC spends 1% of its budget ($7,233,900) on vocational and academic training for inmates. Staff vacancies for trade school instructors are problematic.

Substance Abuse Programs

KDOC spends 2.2% ($14,689,500) of its budget on substance abuse programs (SAP). Almost one third of county jails offer programs in this area. Only 13% of state inmates are serving time for a drug crime but studies have shown that 53% of inmates have a substance abuse disorder.

Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force

NOTE: The 53% of inmates with a substance abuse disorder, mentioned above, came from the minutes of the Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force meeting in Frankfort on July 31, 2020. This is a group of 4 State Senators and 5 State Representatives, KDOC administrators, Legislative Research Commission staff and invited officials and guests (these minutes are no longer available on line). Minutes for the August 21, 2020 and an agenda and link to the upcoming September 18, 2020 meeting are:

The Future for Over-incarceration in Kentucky

From the early 1920’s to 1940 Kentucky almost tripled its inmate population. Economic conditions were difficult. With COVID, the return of bad times for citizens most affected by economic inequality seems certain. Our current PCIR is triple that of the 1930’s. FBI statistics note that the violent crime rate in Kentucky has fallen substantially from 2009 to 2019 and is below the national average Very harsh sentencing laws remain in place. Our inmate population is aging and a section of Kentucky State Reformatory has been turned into a nursing home unit. The state’s prisons and jails were maxed out before COVID and there is every reason to expect overcrowding to return once the virus crisis is past. We are not going to pardon or commute enough sentences to avoid overwhelming increases in inmate population. Increased use of probation and parole, raising the grand larceny threshold, and reduced sentences for drug crimes are strategies that are already in use. We must address mandatory long-term sentencing laws to make a difference. Other states have done this and we can too.

Private Prisons

Kentucky is in the process of re-opening a prison in Floyd County for 665 inmates. This facility is rented for $3 million a year from CoreCivic, a private prison corporation. This prison previously held inmates from Hawaii and Indiana along with Kentucky inmates. In 2018, CoreCivic re-opened its 866-bed prison in Lee County which had held inmates from Vermont as well as Kentucky. KDOC housed inmates in private prisons from 1986 to 2013. Private prisons are perennial contributors to gubernatorial campaigns. We might expect increased use of private prisons here and even be forced to send Kentucky inmates to private prisons in other states. Vermont, and Hawaii are among states doing this now. Kentucky law mandates that private prisons save 10% per diem under state costs. This is not difficult to achieve if CoreCivic can choose only the best behaved, youngest and healthiest inmates and leave the rest to the state. Current costs to keep an inmate in a state prison average $27,000 per year.

Privatization is not new. Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort was turned over to private business under the “Lease System” from 1825 to 1880.

  • Changing Faces – Common Walls. A chronology of Kentucky Prison History 1800-1988. T. Kyle Ellison (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/113548NCJRS.pdf)
  • Crush of Felons Overloads System; Problem will worsen, officials say. Louisville Courier-Journal. By Kay Stewart. August 3, 1987.
  • Prison riot followed increase in inmates; Lee County center took in 400 inmates from Vermont and cut back on privileges. Louisville Courier Journal by Deborah Yetter and Mark Pitsch. September 17, 2004
  • Behind the Bars at Otter Creek. For profits prisons’ benefits questioned. R.G. Dunlop. Louisville Courier-Journal July 4, 2010

Voting Rights

Kentucky is the only state that does not automatically restore the right to vote once a sentence is served out. The League of Women Voters found that 312,000 former inmates in Kentucky cannot vote.

Governor Andy Beshear has restored voting rights to about half of these but a new governor could rescind this.

Educating the Public

Public knowledge of the facts listed above is dismal. No public agency is responsible to proactively inform the voter. An ideal day for KDOC is to stay out of the news. School civics classes fall short. Academia is not stepping out in the public forum and we need them to help. Reference links are hard to find and full of prison jargon. Newspapers and the TV news keep the public in a state of fear. Crime is in the news every day. Prisons and Jails are “Out of sight-Out of mind”

Long term reforms are not possible without public support. There is a role here for Kentucky Educational Television. We might even use billboards with web links describing incarceration issues. This happens already for issues like: drunk driving, smoking, seat belts and the lottery. Imagine a billboard that shows Kentucky has a higher rate of incarceration than all states surrounding it. If the public is not informed, we can expect the vested interests of county jails and private prisons to remain in control. This is the most expensive option of all (over the long term) and is immoral as well.

A long-term institutionalized strategy for public education as a means for prison reform has not been tried and stands out as an opportunity. Ultimately, justice is on the ballot. Many legislators are aware of the facts described above but will not be able to produce reforms without grassroots demands. They might be persuaded that the cost of public ignorance is unacceptable and provide funds for public education on this issue. This could be a great role for a non- profit organization.

We must plan well beyond the next election cycle because short term solutions have never existed. A case could be made that jails and prisons are a short-term solution for the larger inequities reflected by racism, housing, medical care, education, employment, youth poverty, hunger and the increasing wealth gap.

Further Resources

13th – This is a 2016 documentary that provides a national perspective on the Kentucky issues described above and a lot more. Racism and privatization within the justice system is a central theme.

The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald Leader have published many important articles over many years. The Courier-Journal archives are available on line through the Louisville Free Public Library.

The best academic source for our state’s prison history is: History of the Kentucky Prison System 1800 to 1937. PhD dissertation by Robert G. Crawford at University of Kentucky in 1955. This is not on line but is at the Louisville Free Public Library

History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from Its Origin in 1798 to March 1, 1860. By William C. Sneed M.D. Dr. Sneed served as physician at Kentucky State Penitentiary. This was written at the request of the legislature and has photographs. This is at the Louisville Free Public Library

Changing Faces – Common Walls. A Chronology of Kentucky Prison History 1800-1988. T. Kyle Ellison. This is 44 pages and summarizes much from the above sources and includes reports from KDOC and newspapers. (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/113548NCJRS.pdf)

The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky 1992. Pages 742-3. Prisons by T. Kyle Ellison.

Changing Faces – Common Walls Photo Exhibit by Kyle Ellison, 1988, funded by Eastern Kentucky University and the Kentucky Council on Crime and Delinquency for the Kentucky Historical Society (now the Kentucky History Center), no longer publicly available; a copy is in the possession of Kyle Ellison.

Decades Behind Bars: A 20-Year Conversation with Men in America’s Prisons. By Gaye D. Holman 2017. Gaye Holman is a retired Sociology Professor who worked to bring college programs to inmates. (https://www.amazon.com/Decades-Behind-Bars-Conversation-Americas/dp/1476669236)

Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Illustrated Edition. By Douglas A. Blackmon. (https://www.amazon.com/Slavery-Another-Name-Re-Enslavement-Americans/dp/0385722702)

This is also a documentary video from PBS: http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/home/

The Marshall Project. A news organization that “seeks to enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice” (https://www.themarshallproject.org/about?via=navright)

Castle: The Story of a Kentucky Prison. Bill Cunningham 1994. This is the story of the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, Kentucky’s oldest prison built in the 1880s and still in use. Bill Cunningham grew up in the shadow of the penitentiary and is a retired KY Supreme Court Justice. (https://www.amazon.com/Castle-Kentucky-Prison-Bill-Cunningham/dp/0913383325)

My Life-John D. Rees’s Four Decade Career in Corrections. Much of his career took place in Kentucky where he was a warden and later Commissioner of Corrections. He also worked in other states and for Corrections Corporation of America (CoreCivic) (https://www.amazon.com/My-Life-decade-career-Corrections-ebook/dp/B00ZBCYY9A)

The City of Dead Souls And How It was Made Alive Again. A Hundred Years Within the Walls. By Lucian Rule, Chaplain Indiana Reformatory. 1922. In the early 1920’s the Indiana State Reformatory was sold to Colgate Palmolive and faces Louisville from Clarksville IN. Chaplain Rule included history and photos of Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort. This is in the Louisville Free Public Library.

If you are interested in more information and a list of resources, I can forward a piece I wrote July 2020 about the history of pardons in Kentucky which has several pages of references. Spreadsheets showing overcrowding of county jail populations in February 2020 are available. I am working on a book about Kentucky’s prison history and have a large collection of historic photographs.

Thank you for your interest and concern about these important issues. Please participate in the public education process by sharing this overview.

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Kyle Ellison worked for the Kentucky Department of Corrections as a Probation and Parole Officer from 1972 to 1981, and as a prison and jail personnel trainer from 1981 to 1988. While training staff throughout the state, he collected information, photos and interviews about Kentucky’s prison history. In 1988 he created a traveling photo exhibit for the Kentucky Historical Society. Today he uses an extensive collection of historical photographs for public presentations and discussions of needed criminal justice reform. He examines how the past is being reflected today and is working on a book about the history of Kentucky’s prisons. Kyle may be reached attkyleellison@gmail.com

Overview of Kentucky’s Prison and Jail System (2024)

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