Prisons

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The head of Tennessee’s prison system says the number of unfilled correctional officer positions has reached an “all-time high.”

Many facilities were already severely understaffed. Now, officials say the pandemic has made recruitment even harder.

The Department of Correction says it’s short more than 700 prison guards. That’s nearly 30% of all the correctional officer jobs statewide.

Commissioner Tony Parker says “not everyone’s cut out to work in corrections.”

TN Dept. of Corrections

Another round of mass testing has uncovered nearly 1,000 cases of the coronavirus at a Tennessee prison, with more results coming.

CoreCivic, which manages the facility, says nearly all are asymptomatic. But prisoners’ loved ones say they’re hearing a different story.

Jeannie Alexander gets lots of worried phone calls from people inside the South Central Correctional Facility. Even when a deadly virus isn’t spreading inside the walls, the former prison chaplain regularly hears from dozens of men and their loved ones.

In August, Alexander says, the callers started to sound even more anxious than normal.

 


J. Tyler Franklin

On the first Sunday in March, Teresa Johnson’s son called her from the Green River Correctional Complex with news that the facility was shutting down visitation due to the coronavirus.

Johnson didn’t think much of it back then. She had just visited her son earlier that day. The coronavirus seemed to be under control.

Since then it’s been a steady stream of worrisome news.

“My son would call and he would say ‘Mama, there’s more people here sick than what the news is saying,’” Johnson said.

J. Tyler Franklin

A group of women with ties to Kentucky’s Green River Correctional Complex is urging Gov. Andy Beshear to release more inmates amid the pandemic. A dozen women calling themselves “Prison Wives of Green River Correctional Complex” gathered outside the governor’s mansion and the Kentucky Capitol on Saturday afternoon, carrying homemade signs and wearing T-shirts with pictures of their loved ones who are behind bars.

As of May 22, 357 inmates and 50 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus at Green River, a state prison in Muhlenberg County. Three men have died, although the state says the exact cause of death for one of those men is still pending.

Kentucky Department of Corrections

The number of COVID-19 cases in Muhlenberg County has spiked suddenly, following the recent mass testing at a state prison in Central City.

The Muhlenberg County Health Department reports 467 cases of COVID-19.

The total includes confirmed cases in the community, and at the Green Rive Correctional Complex, a state prison in Central City that can house close to 1,000 men. 

Alma Fink is nursing supervisor for the Muhlenberg County Health Department.

“The spike was reported suddenly because as the tests were done over the period of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that week, they were sent to Gravity labs to be finalized, and those results started flowing in a couple of days after the tests were run," said Fink.


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Mass testing at two Tennessee prisons has uncovered nearly 2,000 cases of the coronavirus behind bars so far.

Officials have repeatedly said most inmates who have tested positive are not showing symptoms. But some health experts are cautioning prisons to prepare for that to change.

When the Tennessee Department of Correction first reported that 162 inmates at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex had tested positive for the coronavirus on Apr. 20, officials said the “vast majority” were asymptomatic.

 


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Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order last week releasing 186 inmates from state prisons who were vulnerable to the coronavirus. Advocates are calling on the state to take similar steps to protect juveniles who are incarcerated.

The ACLU of Kentucky has sent a letter to Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris, asking her to release as many children as possible, and publicly share the department’s emergency response plan for addressing the pandemic.

“Even in the best of circumstances, infection control presents a significant challenge in these situations because incarcerated youth…often congregate in large groups and live [in] communal settings with shared bathrooms, dining areas, and more,” the letter reads.

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Kentucky is one of many states facing overcrowded jails and surging costs for holding those inmates. State lawmakers are considering some minor efforts to reform the commonwealth’s criminal justice system.

One bill in the Kentucky General Assembly would make it easier to transfer state prisoners to jails that are at, or below, 150 percent capacity.

 

Ashley Spalding, a research director for the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said while the transfer bill could bring down overcrowding at different times, it doesn’t address the true causes of the problem.


Prison overcrowding has increasingly become part of the national conversation. Meanwhile, states are trying to do more to keep ex-offenders from going back to jail after completing their sentences.

Recidivism has several negative consequences, including state spending on housing inmates and the fact that potential members of the workforce are unavailable.

This is the first story in a four-part series of reports about efforts to combat the trend in our region.


Lisa Autry

Kentucky’s chief justice of the Supreme Court says he expects bail reform to come up again in the state legislature. 

John Minton Jr. says the current method of setting bail disproportionately affects low-income defendants who aren’t able to pay for release after being charged with low-level, non-violent offenses. 

Minton addressed members of the Bowling Green Noon Rotary Club on Wednesday.

Despite legislation failing to pass the General Assembly this year, he said going to a cashless bail system has bi-partisan support.

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Kentucky’s top corrections official says staying out of prison could be as easy as having a job for some former inmates.

The state is developing a partnership between prisons and industries in hopes of both decreasing recidivism and filling vacant jobs.  Under the initiative, industries would move some operations to prison grounds, and provide training and near private sector wages to inmates.

A felony record often shuts former inmates out of the job market and that increases their chances of committing more offenses and returning to jail.  

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As Kentucky’s drug overdose and incarceration rates continue to surge, some are renewing the call for the state to reform its criminal justice system and increase opportunities for drug treatment.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said the number of people in Kentucky’s prison system surpassed 25,000 for the first time this year.

“We’re constantly trying to keep the tourniquet applied because we’ve let it get this bad as a state,” Tilley said at a legislative hearing at Lake Barkley State Resort. “That’s the problem, there’s so much deferred maintenance, so much neglect of facilities throughout the state.”

Jennifer Dennis came from a family of correctional officers, and, as a single mom, she was grateful for her good-paying job at Little Sandy Correctional Complex in rural northeastern Kentucky.

But then her supervisor took an interest in her — and she said her dream job quickly became a nightmare.

"At first, it was like rubbing my butt, or trying to grab my boobs, or trying to pinch my tail," she said.

But then, she said, Sgt. Stephen Harper began to get more aggressive. Once, he barged through the door as she was exiting a staff bathroom.

Rhonda Miller

A Kentucky program to train shelter dogs so they have a chance to be adopted has reached a milestone.  Inmates at a Muhlenberg County prison have trained 1,000 canines in a project called 'Death Row Dogs.'

In a bright sunny room at Green River Correctional Complex, 12 dogs are sitting beside their trainers. It’s week 11 of a 12-week program called 'Death Row Dogs.'

Allen Hearld says the lab mix named Snookie is the sixth dog he’s trained.  


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Kentucky is taking part in a new research program aimed at reducing the recidivism rate of the state’s prison inmates. Kentucky is one of four states participating in the project.

The Safe Streets and Second Chances program will be funded by the Koch Industries network. The project will begin in June with 200 randomly chosen inmates in Kentucky prisons. The program’s advisory board chair Mark Holden said the idea is to begin the process of preparing an inmate for reentry as soon as they’re incarcerated.


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