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Prison-Industrial Complex

Profiting Off Prisoners: State Inmates Mean Big Bucks for Local Jails

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County jails make money from holding prisoners under state jurisdiction. Photo: Thinkstock

Rural jails in Kentucky are increasingly relying on income derived from payments for holding state prisoners in county facilities, according to a new report by a think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform.

To address overcrowding, states make payments to counties to hold convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. States save money, and counties get an extra influx of cash.

In rural Kentucky, the report’s authors warn,  the dynamic speaks to a perception that incarceration is a tool for economic development. The reliance on income from state prisoners is particularly stark in cash-strapped counties suffering from a decline in another major form of revenue, the coal excise tax.

“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that relies so heavily on local jails to hold people who have been sentenced to prison,” said Jasmine Heiss, outreach director at the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored the report. “This has deepened political and social alignment around prison,” she said. “In the coal fields, the political and social alignment has the additional context of the decline of the coal industry and needing to turn to another industry or source of revenue.”

Unsustainable Growth

Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the nation. As of February, 2019, Kentucky had more than 23,000 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 prison beds available, the report said. The state’s solution to overcrowding is to pay “per diem” fees to county jails to house excess inmates. The state pays eligible county jails $31.34 per inmate per day for food and medical expenses, roughly half of what the state spends to house per inmate in a state prison.

Among all states, Kentucky houses the second highest percentage of state inmates in county jails, at 49 percent.

According to the report, the number of people held in local jails for the state increased by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. West Virginia falls seventh, at 18 percent. Ohio does not hold state inmates in county jails.

Jack Norton, one of the report’s co-authors, said that despite policies aimed at reducing Kentucky’s prison population, incarceration continues to grow at an “alarming” rate. “If the incarceration rates continue to rise in Kentucky at the same rate is has since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years,” Norton said.

Despite the mathematical impossibility of continued growth, the report said many county officials, particularly in rural counties, consider increasing jail capacity a solution to budget woes.

Knox County, in southeast Kentucky, has plans to build a new 350-bed jail. The report notes the current Knox County jail has space for 36 inmates but regularly holds 100 people.

“The state prison system is pushing people down to the county jail level, which is incentivizing counties in Kentucky to build bigger jails in order to take advantage of the per diem payments that the state DOC gives to county jails,” Norton said.

Coal Cuts

Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, has seen its population decrease, but its incarcerated population has risen by 1,500 percent since 1978. A lot of that increase, the report says, is from prisoners sentenced in the state system. A Harlan County official told the Vera Institute nearly two-thirds of the county jail budget, or $1.8 million, comes from state payments for housing inmates.

Judah Schept, Norton’s co-author and a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the per diem payments for holding state inmates were particularly important in the state’s eastern coal fields, where budgets once boosted by coal severance taxes were flagging.

“The money that the state pays for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” the report said.

Coal production began to decline decades ago, but around 2011, cheap natural gas caused a steep decline in coal production in eastern Kentucky. The decline in coal production meant drastic cuts to many local budgets, which have long relied on the tax on mined coal that the state distributes to mining counties.

Harlan County, a traditional coal county, saw its severance tax payments drop from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016, according to the report.

Depending on Growth

The report’s authors urged county officials to be wary of relying too heavily on payments for housing state prisoners. If the state’s criminal justice policies change and the prison population begins to decline, county jails could be left footing the bill for unnecessarily large jails, even as the loss of per-diem revenue causes further hardship to local budgets.

“Rather than pursue policies that would address [over-incarceration] in some way, that would reduce the number of people behind bars,” said Heiss, “this quiet jail expansion around the state enables this limiting of the political and moral imagination around over-incarceration. The only solution that is being pursued is to provide more and more beds.”

As the federal government and states across the country pass legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has continued to rise. Legislation has been introduced in Frankfort that could reduce the number of people jailed before trial, potentially reducing the the state’s reliance on counties for bed space. Previous versions of the bill have been introduced but not passed.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Video Call Blues in the Knox County Jail

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From the experience of a father’s forgiveness expressed with the pat of a hand, to a mother fixing your hair before the homecoming dance, to a brother holding you back from a schoolyard fight, our relationships with others are comprised of our shared sensory experiences. These formative life moments consist of presence; that irreplaceable feeling of having someone you love in the room with you, looking you in the eyes.

Incarceration removes individuals from their loved oneslives and isolates them from the world they once knew. Visitation policies have changed over the decades. From the once relatively lax (and free) table visitations of earlier in the 20th century, the act has been moved behind Plexiglas, on landlines, and recently been overtaken by a slightly more pixelated equivalent of Skype, to the tune of six dollars for a half hour, limited to twice a week. Thats in Knox County, Tennessee: where, in order to cut a profit off video software, Knox County contracted with Securus Technologies to end all in-person visits in the county jail.

In largely cash-poor Central Appalachian communities, prisons, local government and industry have combined forces to find ways to profit by emptying the coffers of county commissions. In Letcher County, $444 million went  to  the construction of a new prison on the site of an old strip mine. The so-called Gulag Archipelago, a network of high-security prisons, is scattered across Appalachia in this way, making use of open space, desperate and cash-poor local government, and an abundance of privately traded land. The prison-industrial complex here extends deep into carceral life, from catering of food (often Aramark) to the production of cheap fabrics and electrical products, road maintenance, and even cheese. Sometimes they profit from certain immigration policies; Sheriff J. J. Jones, who espoused the Securus contract, has made overtures to collaborate with ICE in the past, saying he is eager to stack (immigrants) like cordwood.

In Knoxville, Nathan Light, originally of Memphis, spent his childhood with an incarcerated father. His father passed away during that time, and so Nathans last memories with his father are of seeing him through prison Plexiglas, wishing they could hold one another, even touch hands.

I didnt get a last hug,” Light said of his father, who was a preacher before his incarceration. The last time I saw him it was through the bulletproof glass of a visitation booth. The last time I heard his voice was through a two way phone.”

Nathan was horrified to hear about the new visitation developments in Knox County. How can our government be so callous? How can they justify this needless pain?he said at a rally in Knoxville last month, his words quiet but emphatic. Nothing can replace seeing someone in front of you with your own eyes, even from behind bulletproof glass.

Had Nathan grown up in Knox County in 2017, the process of maintaining communication with his father would look a lot more complicated. First, he would have had to sign up for an account with Securus. He and his father would have had to make it work during one of the two preset times per week he was available. Nathan would have a choice: to stay home and pay, or to drive to the crowded kiosks at the jail and speak with his father, on video, from within the same building, for free. If Nathans bandwidth is low at home – if, for instance, he lives in a rural area or cannot afford high-speed internet – the video might cut out.  There are no refunds, no call-backs. If the video cuts out fifteen minutes in, you still pay $6. If Nathan or his father are late to the pre-assigned visit, there is no overtime. The jails website warns call participants not to make large movements, as this may cause the video to lag. Under Sheriff Jonesdirection, Securus also sells tablets to inmates for $425 each, which they must purchase from commissary. No social media apps are allowed, but they can use them to book haircuts.

East Tennessee jails have said that video visitation is a “win-win,” making money for poor counties, reducing trade in illicit materials, and allowing for increased surveillance of inmates. In Hamblen County, Tennessee, where Securus contracted before Knox County, a 2011 article quotes Lt. Craig Cloer: “Liability’s down, contraband is in control, and we don’t have to fix windows anymore.” Furthermore, local deputies can turn off the inmates’ camera if they ask for a “private-part peek,” as they term it.

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Tennessee incarcerates 740 out of every 100,000 people, well above the international average of 151 per 100,000. The majority of these people, as in everywhere in the United States, are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. In the county jails, many incarcerated people are not necessarily convicted; they are simply too poor to pay bail, and thus awaiting trial behind bars.  

According to the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Tennessee-based research and advocacy organization, the end of in-person visits does not mean the end of infractions.  Contraband still makes the rounds behind bars. Recidivism does not decrease; in fact, it increases. Face to Face Knoxville, a project of the collective, is currently working to overturn the Knox County rules.

Knox is not the first county to make this bargain, and it wont be the last; neither are its people the first to fight back. Securusvictory is no mandate: in some counties, in-person visits have been reinstated, and co-exist with video calls.

In Austin, Texas this past fall, lawmakers mandated that each inmate receive two twenty-minute in-person visits per week. In the time that video-only visits were instated, infractions shot up, and the money counties made didnt seem to make up for the trouble.  Ultimately, though, what was most disturbing were not the economic implications of the policy, but the personal.

Nathan Light did not even try to offer facts and figures for his case. His knowledge is not based in years of pouring over the law; its based in the heart. All I ask today is that we have some compassion,said Nathan, as the January chill raised goosebumps on the activists gathered outside the City-County Building. Not just for the prisoners, but for their families and children as well, because I know first hand that all they want, all they need to keep going, is a little more than just Facetime.With that he popped his collar up against the bitter wind and exited the podium.

Katie Myers (@stopitkatie) is a writer, community organizer, and arts educator residing in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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