FRANKFORT -- Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday that his administration is exploring the possible purchase of two private prisons as part of its ambitious plan to address the steadily rising inmate population that drains hundreds of millions of dollars from Kentucky's state budget each year and dangerously overcrowds local jails that hold the spillover.
Beshear did not offer an estimated cost for the prisons, but he said the state already expects to pay $115.3 million in additional prison costs just to finish the current fiscal year and make it through the next two-year budget.
For a comparison, he added, Kentucky could have helped local school districts pay for full-day kindergarten statewide for about $90 million.
The state Department of Corrections has contracts with Nashville-based CoreCivic to house inmates at its 866-bed prison in Lee County and its 656-bed prison in Floyd County, although the latter -- which has not yet opened -- is only to be leased for space by the state, so Kentucky correctional officers are supposed to manage the facility.
Meanwhile, Beshear said at a news conference, crumbling state-owned prisons have lost 1,269 beds just since 2016 as facilities age and unsafe dorms must close. And state prisons like Kentucky State Reformatory in Oldham County, where unemployment is low, can't attract correctional officers for the starting salary of $30,000, he said.
Given all that, purchasing two newer prisons in rural eastern Kentucky, where unemployment rates are higher, might make sense, Beshear said. Also, the governor said, he opposes the concept of private, for-profit prisons.
"We should be housing inmates in state-owned, state-run facilities," Beshear said.
"Now, getting there requires us to address the overall challenges," he said, jerking a thumb at a chart showing the state's rising incarceration numbers. "While I think it's immoral, admittedly it is hard to criticize decisions that had to be made with that spiking incarcerated population. If we can change that, we change the decisions that are available to us."
In a brief prepared statement released late Friday, CoreCivic said: "As a government solutions company, we pride ourselves in being flexible and working collaboratively with our government partners to identify the right solution."