By Kyle Ellison
A version of this article appeared in the Courier-Journal
The nine-minute video of George Floyd’s murder is proving to be the most influential video ever made. Racist policing is front and center now, causing white people to stop ignoring other elements of systemic racism. Black people have endured persistent inequalities in housing, employment, health care, education, and income disparity for centuries. I would add incarceration to the list of injustices whites have ignored.
The protests in Breonna/Jefferson Square are taking place in the shadow of the Metro jail, which is the second largest incarceration facility (by bed capacity) in Kentucky. Our state locks up Black people at almost triple their percentage of the state’s population. This is a higher rate than Alabama, which is double. White people should not forget that 4 of every 5 inmates in Kentucky prisons are white. Since we are all in this (prison of injustice) together we need to focus on the causes of mass incarceration and the unprecedented growth of Kentucky’s prison/jail population since 1980.
In 1940, Kentucky had a total of 4000 inmates in its three prisons. By 1970 the inmate count had decreased to 3000 inmates! In 1980 the count was again at 4000 inmates in the same three prisons and a number of minimum-security facilities. During the 1980s the inmate population doubled and almost doubled again in the 1990s. Inmates overflowed into the county jails and three private prisons. By 2017, the inmate population had grown 600% to almost 25,000. Half of these inmates were in 12 state prisons and the rest were held in county jails and a private prison in Lee County. An additional 50,000 people were on probation or parole.
What was a $50 million prison budget for 1982 is $668 million today. Kentucky is in the top ten states for percentage of citizens locked up. This puts us in a group with Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Arizona. How did this happen?
Beginning In the 1980s, and continuing to the present, “The War on Crime/Drugs” has made it easy for legislators to get elected by promising to be “tough on crime” and they have fulfilled these promises. During the 1980s alone, more than 20 new laws were passed that made prison sentences longer. The racist “Gang Bill” is a recent example. The average sentence in Kentucky is now 14 years. (In Alabama it is 10 years.) A section of Kentucky State Reformatory has been turned into a nursing home.
Inmates have become a commodity, with county budgets becoming dependent on the income and jobs they generate. Almost two-thirds of inmates in our 76 county jails are paid for by state or federal authorities. This has created a financial incentive for counties to overcrowd the jails and they have done exactly that. County jails and private prisons compete for inmates by spending money lobbying legislators and contributing to gubernatorial campaigns. Everyone wins but the inmates and the taxpayers.
Voters (especially white voters) have to take responsibility for this vicious circle of incarceration. The daily stream of crime stories in the media has put voters in a “news bubble” and it is well past time to burst it. Without long term commitment to public education on these issues, reforms will be temporary, yet no public agency is responsible for proactively educating the public. Public school classes in civics fall short.
We call upon our legislators to consider long term plans for reform, plans that go far beyond the next election cycle. In the short term, we can demand substantial sentencing reforms. Other states like Missouri have done this and are experiencing a decline in inmate population. We should follow their lead instead of racing to the bottom.
Like racist policing, the cost of “tough on crime” has become unbearable. Louisvillians pay $187 million for Metro police, $55 million for the Metro jail plus their share of the $668 million state prison system, and millions more for the criminal court system. There are more effective uses for these funds. Voters should stop expecting police and prisons to solve all our problems. Black people have been demanding these changes for many years and it is time whites joined in.
Kyle Ellison worked for Kentucky Department of Corrections from 1972 to 1988 as a Probation and Parole Officer and a Training Officer for prisons and jails. He is writing a book on the 220-year history of the Kentucky prison system.