WKYT Investigates: High capacities, understaffing a major problem in Kentucky jails and prisons

Kentucky jails and prisons are dealing with several issues when it comes to overcrowding and...
Kentucky jails and prisons are dealing with several issues when it comes to overcrowding and understaffing. (WKYT)(WKYT)
Published: Aug. 26, 2019 at 5:55 PM EDT
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Lincoln County Jailer Rob Wilson said he has a 72-bed jail and 182 inmates currently staying in the facility. That is nothing new. In fact, there are 29 jails in Kentucky that are 150 percent or more overcapacity. The two isolation rooms in the Lincoln County jail usually have two inmates inside.

"It's always full," Wilson told WKYT Investigates.

But the reason for WKYT's visit had to do with another problem. In direct relation to overcrowding is understaffing of corrections officers. It's just as evident on a county level. Jailer Wilson showed us how his small staff doesn't even have time to eat at work. There were kids' size chip bags and sodas lining the stairs of the jail. Wilson said that's how they eat -- on the go.

The state dictates to jails they must have four people on staff for every shift. Wilson can get by, but some jails are falling short, and so are the state prisons. There is a 21 percent vacancy rate for correctional officers across the state. One prison, that the Corrections Commission wouldn't name for safety reasons during an interim joint committee meeting on judiciary, had a 57 percent vacancy rate among correctional officers just two weeks ago. Now, that prison is down to a 47 percent vacancy.

For the second time in as many months, WKYT was denied a sit-down interview regarding the understaffing concerns. But we were able to find out plenty during Friday's judiciary committee meeting.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Kenney told lawmakers that 65 percent of corrections officers have less than five years of experience. 28 percent have less than a year.

"So we're taking inexperienced staff, working in facilities that gave infrastructure problems, and they're having to work overtime so they are fatigued," Kenney said.

State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said corrections officers in her district have to drive halfway across the state to cover deficits at other prisons.

"We don't give them the respect they deserve," Webb said. "I resent it, and I care about these people."

"We at the department do absolutely value our corrections officers and from day one we began looking at officer wellness." Justice Secretary John Tilley responded.

"We're putting our officers in danger. We're putting our inmates in danger. We need to rethink where we are and the way we're treating our corrections officers or we're not going to be able to get them," explained Sen. Webb.

Secretary Tilley said in the committee meeting that county jails don't have to take state prisoners if they don't want them. Jailer Wilson says that's not true.

"The inmates come into our jail, and they stop. We don't ask for them. We ask to get rid of them and we are consistently told, 'We don't have room.'"

The state said they're doing studies and are getting work groups together to figure out solutions. Until then, overworked corrections officers are having to deal with the number of inmates they’re dealt.