Gov. Frank Keating has quietly lined up behind a plan to solve the state prison population crisis by farming out at least 2,663 additional inmates to private prisons during the next fiscal year.
That's a 148 percent increase over the 1,800 private prison beds currently authorized.
The huge increase is expected to draw opposition in the Legislature, especially in the Senate, where the Democratic majority has traditionally tried to hold the line on prison spending. Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees corrections, still believes private prisons should be used sparingly. Last year, he said he was dragged "screaming and kicking" into supporting a $45 million increase for the Department of Corrections that earmarked most of the money to private prisons. House Speaker Loyd Benson, D-Frederick, has said private prisons may have to be an option, although he thinks there needs to be tighter controls over them. He also is exploring the possibility of building another state facility. State Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, has advanced a bill for a statewide vote on a half-cent sales tax to build state prisons to take care of future problems, but Keating has taken the position that no new prisons are needed. On that, if nothing else in the corrections arena, Keating and Hobson appear to agree. "Building more prisons ought to be the last option, not the first option," Hobson said. Last Tuesday, the Board of Corrections held a special meeting in an effort to draw attention to crowded prison conditions. "We aren't crying wolf anymore," acting Corrections Director James Saffle said. "The wolf is here." Board members viewed photographs of crowded conditions. In recent months, DOC officials have been cutting inmate space, converting day space and offices whenever possible to house inmates in dormitory- type bunkbed settings. The space reduction was in line with the recommendations of a consultant hired to look at the state system at Keating's urging. Some board members expressed disgust after being shown pictures of minimum-security inmates crammed into small rooms at one prison. "This scares the hell out of me and it should for whomever looks at these photos," board member Daniel Bintz said after viewing pictures of minimum-security inmates crammed into small rooms. Hobson said the crunch is tied to some extent by decisions of Keating and the DOC to halt all early-release programs. "We've been saying that you just can't continue to throw them into existing facilities and not have this situation," he said. The DOC's moves to reduce inmate space gained the department 886 beds, to a total of 15,271. …