Opinion – Retired Kentucky jail and corrections employees speak out on passage of House Bill 5


HB5, the “Safer Kentucky Act,” is emotion-based legislation, rather than the evidence-based legislation Kentucky deserves.

Legislators and research organizations who presented data and asked hard questions were stonewalled at every step of development of this legislation. Kentucky has the eighth harshest criminal sentencing statutes in the U.S., and this is a significant increase. Facts about the decrease in crime rates in Kentucky and the unknown billions of dollars HB5 will cost, were drowned out by “tough-on-crime” sermons, photos of crime victims, and incessant crime stories on our televisions and computers.

HB5 wrote a blank check on an account that is already overdrawn, and it will cause conditions of incarceration that are even more inhumane and dangerous than what we have now. Those of us who worked in prisons and jails over the past 50 years have first-hand experience resulting from legislation that created more incarcerated people without adding money to the corrections budget for humane housing, rehabilitation programs and staff.

(Graphic Illustration from ACLU of Kentucky)

Over the past 40 years, our legislature has enabled county jail beds to be used as state prisons, because jail beds are half the cost of state prison beds. Forty percent of state prisoners serving felony time are housed in jails designed for short term confinement, with no space or resources for humane living conditions and rehabilitation programs.

The majority of county jails — 45 of 74 — are overcrowded. Twenty-eight jails have 120%, or more, people than beds and ten of those jails are more than 150% overcrowded. County budgets profit from overcrowding their jail with state and federal prisoners who come with per diems for the jail. If horses were treated this way, there would be public outrage.

Kentucky has only one private prison. Our county jails are being operated on a private prison business model and overcrowding prisoners brings in more money. Kentucky is the only state where jailers are elected officials who can lobby the legislature to support their interests. Kentucky’s jailers are well on their way to controlling the Kentucky Department of Corrections and there is no means to hold these individual “Kingdoms” accountable.

Our state prisons and jails are facing dramatic and sustained staff shortages which create dangers for staff and prisoners alike. From 2022 to early 2024, Kentucky State Penitentiary operated at half capacity because of staff shortage. Luther Luckett Correctional Complex has correctional officers working 60-hour weeks in a prison holding twice the number of people it was designed for.

Kentucky State Reformatory, once the largest state prison, is being closed for lack of staff. The largest state prison in 20 years is being built to accommodate geriatric prisoners. Louisville’s Metro jail is 80 correctional officers short. In 2021, Lexington’s jail considered using the National Guard for jail staff.

These issues require funds that could be spent on education, mental health, addiction and housing. HB5 dumped those problems on the legislators and citizens of tomorrow. In the meantime, we will all suffer when people held in inhumane conditions, without rehabilitation programs, are released.

Kentucky’s state prisons hold 11,500 people and county jails hold 20,000 more. There are 63,000 people on probation or parole. HB5 might feel tough on crime, but there is no evidence it will make anyone safer.

Read an in-depth analysis of how the process and passage of HB5 failed the people of Kentucky at www.aclu-ky.org.

Ten retired jail and corrections employees signed this letter and accompanying research report. They have a combined total of 245 years’ experience in corrections work.

E. Gail Chandler
Kyle Ellison
Becky Gentry
Gaye Holman
Gary Marvin
Tom Mugavin
Michael Price
Steve Tonnemacher
Dave Vislisel
Dennis Wagner


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