Prison riot followed increase in inmates; Lee County center took in 400 prisoners from Vermont and cut back on privileges

by Deborah Yetter and Mark Pitsch
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
September 17, 2004

The inmate riot Tuesday at a private Eastern Kentucky prison followed a dramatic increase in inmates and cutbacks in privileges such as free time outdoors , prison officials said.

It also came after allegations of inmate abuse and mistreatment increased and visits from friends and family were cut back, an inmate advocate said. The Lee Adjustment Center near Beattyville took in 400 new prisoners from Vermont about four months ago, raising the population to about 800 men, officials said yesterday.

Corrections Corporation of America , which runs the prison for the Kentucky Corrections Department, does not believe those factors explain the riot in which inmates set two buildings on fire, spokeswoman Louise Chickering said yesterday.

"There is no justification for the destruction those inmates did, " she said.

But advocates for inmates and others familiar with the prison industry said crowding, cuts in privileges and an influx of inmates far from home created an explosive situation there.

"Usually when there's a prison riot it occurs after months or years of intolerable conditions, " said Barry Kade, a Vermont lawyer and a member of the Alliance for Prison Justice, an advocacy group which works to improve conditions for Vermont inmates.

Kade and others said private prison companies are profit driven to increase inmate populations. Nashville-based Corrections Corp oration, the country's largest private prison company, gets a daily rate of $38.44 for each Kentucky inmate it houses at the Beattyville prison and $42.50 per inmate from Vermont.

Kade said he has received an increasing number of complaints from Vermont inmates since they were sent to Kentucky this year to relieve prison crowding in their home state.

Of the nine inmates who officials said started the fires, five were from Kentucky and four from Vermont.

The increasingly common practice of states sending inmates to private prisons in other states has exacerbated problems, said some outside observers.

"It's very clear that shipping prisoners far from their families is not good criminal justice policy, " said Peter Wagner, assistant director of Prison Policy Initiative, a non profit policy and research group in Massachusetts.

Ray Flum, director of inmate classification for the Vermont Department of Corrections, said the state has been sending prisoners to publicly run prisons out of state for a number of years. But its contract with Corrections Corporation is its first with a private corporation.

"Are we surprised that something like this happened and we're involved in it? Yes we are, " Flum said. "In the six or seven years we've been doing business like this out of state it's the first time this has happened."

Corrections Corporation also experienced riots in July at prisons it runs in Colorado and Mississippi - both of which house out-of-state inmates. The company, which operates three private prisons in Kentucky, also had a nine-hour riot in 2001 by inmates at its Otter Creek Correctional Complex in Floyd County, which housed Indiana inmates.

Chickering said the company doesn't believe adding prisoners from another state was the cause of the uprisings. "We have had out-of-state inmates at numerous facilities for many years without incident, " she said.

But others say a concentration of inmates hundreds of miles from friends and family can lead to problems at prisons.

"I think this latest uprising fits into this general pattern of unhappiness by prisoners who have been transported out of state, " said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a Vermont-based magazine about the prison industry.

Vermont inmates at Beattyville complained to Kade that visits from friends and family - who must drive about 1,000 miles to Kentucky - were cut to two hours a week. Free time on the yard was cut and some inmates alleged they were mistreated through physical abuse or by being put into isolation without having committed any violation, he said.

Chickering said free time was restricted as a security measure around the time the Vermont inmates arrived at the prison.

"We think it makes sense as a management philosophy, " she said.

Chickering said prisoners had adequate space at the facility originally built to house 500 inmates. Before taking in additional inmates from Vermont, the company built a 256-bed unit and added 60 bunks in existing dormitories at the prison, bringing the capacity to 816.

At the time of Tuesday night's riot, the prison held 803 inmates.

Kentucky Corrections Commissioner John Rees - a former Corrections Corporation official - said yesterday that the facility was not crowded.

"That just hasn't been an issue," he said.

Chickering said staff increased from 165 to 211 after the population increased by 300 inmates. The facility made room for the Vermont inmates by sending some Kentucky inmates to other facilities, Kentucky corrections officials said.

Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, said it's hard to say whether that amount of staff is adequate because it depends on the layout of the prison and the level of security needed.

However, he said his magazine has long been critical of the private industry because it saves money by skimping on staff. That, coupled with boosting inmate population, adds up to profits, he said.

Chickering said Corrections Corporation operates quality prisons, provides adequate staff and is proud of its accreditation by the American Corrections Association.

Kentucky, Vermont and Corrections Corporation have all said they plan to investigate Tuesday's riot. Kade said he will ask for an outside investigation.

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