Kentucky prison goes 'all-girl'

Fredonia, KY – A Lyon County prison will soon see a dramatic shift in population. An order from the governor's office has established the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex as the state's second all-female prison. The move comes following allegations that prison guards sexually mistreated women at a private prison in far eastern Kentucky. Angela Hatton has the story.

The Otter Creek Correctional Center near Wheelwright, Kentucky, first came under scrutiny last summer when multiple female inmates alleged sexual mistreatment. A State Department of Corrections investigation found Otter Creek officials ignored several cases of possible sexual abuse. Governor's Office Deputy Communications Director Kerri Richardson says that's when the administration stepped to action.

"And so we began to look at other ways that we can protect the inmates that we have custody of, as well as protect, uh, the folks who work in those facilities."

Kentucky officials decided the best way to do that was to put all the female inmates under state supervision. Jennifer Brislin is Communications Director for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. She says West Kentucky Correctional Complex was officials' pick for the switch because of the staff's track record.

"What they went through in terms of the ice storm and how they kept the facility up and running without power for a number of days, worked in the community. I think that's kind of a testament to what we expect with this flip. Y'know, being able to handle a change of this magnitude."

Kerri Richardson says many of the nearly seven hundred men at WKCC will replace the women at Otter Creek, while some will head to other prisons around the state. Richardson explains there are advantages to moving the women to Lyon County.

"It's cheaper for the private company to care for a male inmate than it is for a female inmate. So we will be saving money by moving over those prisoners into Otter Creek and moving the female prisoners into our jurisdiction, into our prison system."

The change will be cost neutral in the first year, but officials project it will save the state 2-point-2 million dollars in subsequent years. Richardson says WKCC also allows room for growth. About four hundred female inmates are headed there, and the facility has 673 beds, leaving space for women currently in county jails to transfer to the state facility. Jennifer Brislin acknowledges women are the fastest-growing segment of Kentucky's prison population.

"We see a lot of drug related crimes that land people in jail, a lot of changes in our penal code. I think in general we might be seeing more females prosecuted and convicted because there just might be more of a sense of, um, in the community, of holding females as accountable and we've always held males for these crimes."

Governor Beshear has called for the switch to be complete by the beginning of the fiscal year, which starts July 1. That means staff at WKCC need to get ready. Brislin expects some minor building renovations, like updated bathrooms. The guard staff will get their own overhaul through training in handling female-inmates. Cookie Crews is the warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange and the former warden at Kentucky's first female prison. Crews says correctional officers need to know the differences in handling men and women inmates.

"The biggest thing is how to approach a female and how to carry yourself with a female. Some of these women have domestic violence in their past, they've have a lot of abuse in their past, and while you might could raise your voice at a male to get his attention, you won't necessarily raise your voice at a female to get your point across."

Crews says staff should also expect female inmates to need more verbal interaction.

"You work with the male population, they come in your office, they ask their question. You say, Can you check back with me Tuesday of next week and I'll have that for you.' The man will say OK, and he'll come back on Tuesday, he'll get what he needs, and he's on his way. The female will come back every day to ask the same question until that Tuesday."

Some things at the prison won't change. The female inmates will still be expected to participate in WKCC's work programs. Just like the men, women there will get their hands dirty with community service projects outside the walls and at the 23-hundred acre farm on the prison grounds.