Jails, prisons detail ongoing COVID challenges, losses, financial needs

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – The Interim Joint Committee on State Government met for a joint meeting with the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government to discuss the recent Supreme Court ruling on measures passed during the 2021 Legislative Session including HB 1, SB 1, SB 2, and HJR 77.

Members also heard testimony on the impact COVID-19 on correctional facilities in the Commonwealth.

The General Assembly is finalizing details for a possible special session to deal with COVID-related issues. Only the Governor has the power to call the legislature into special session and set the agenda.

However, only the legislature is responsible for passing laws.

Three legislative committees are meeting this week to engage in discussions with stakeholders and the Governor’s administration.

Lawmakers look forward engaging in the legislative process to provide citizens, schools, organizations, and businesses the tools they need to address this pandemic.

Last month, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a ruling which ordered Franklin Circuit Court to dissolve an injunction blocking HB 1, SB 1, SB 2, and HJR 77 from becoming law.

The court’s decision will become final 21 days following the initial ruling. As a result, on September 13, the long-standing executive orders will no longer be in effect.

Representative Jason Nemes of Louisville explained, “The Governor argued that he alone got to determine when an emergency existed. He alone got to respond to the emergency. He alone got to determine how long the emergency existed.

The Supreme Court said ‘no’,” said Nemes. “As the Supreme Court has mentioned time and time again, the General Assembly holds the power to establish the public policy in Kentucky.”

The committee also heard from both the Kentucky Jailers Association and the Kentucky Department of Corrections to discuss issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Dailey, President of the Kentucky Jailers Association and Campbell County Jailer, highlighted the monetary and personnel issues surrounding the climate in the Campbell County Detention Center.

Dailey noted that within the last year, staffing has been cut in half as a result of the worker’s hesitation. Overtime cost his detention center $600,000 this year alone.

With staffing issues, there have also been logistic hurdles faced due to limited visitation and court proceedings being held virtually.

Along with the local detention issues, Commissioner Cookie Crews and Robyn Bender, General Counsel for Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Robyn Bender with the Kentucky Department of Corrections noted that the correctional system avoids hazardous pitfalls of the pandemic, in multiple steps.

Crews noted that the entire system currently sits at 83.02 percent vaccinated with a population of just under 11,000 inmates.

The biggest hurdle within the state system is being the loss of life that occurred at the onset of COVID-19 last year.

Representative Matt Lockett of Nicholasville questioned, “Can you describe what kinds of policies that you have in place to protect the guards and personnel?”

Crews shared that staff members were issued K-N95 masks and can also get other masks as needed. The Campbell County Detention Center has enforced a mask mandate with mandatory temperature checks. The center allows online visitation in lieu of in-person visitation.

Representative DJ Johnson of Owensboro asked Crews to provide legislators with the percentage of jail staff that has been vaccinated.

Crews indicated that more than 50 percent of staff at the Campbell County Detention Center have been fully vaccinated while only 200 inmates of 585 maximum capacity have been vaccinated.

Recently, the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women near Pewee Valley was hit with a power outage due to equipment failure. The Department of Corrections was the subject of a federal lawsuit when seven inmates with health conditions challenged their safety under the prison’s COVID-conditions. A federal judge eventually ruled against the inmates.

Representative Samara Heavrin of Leitchfield asked Crews for specific steps taken at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in order to mitigate the spread of the virus during the power outage. Crews did not directly answer the question Heavrin asked but indicated that the facility is utilizing masking, testing, and vaccinating.

Heavrin asked Crews when the power at Pewee Valley is set to be restored. Commissioner Crews shared as of last night, the institution has full power with the use of generators.

Representative Nancy Tate of Brandenburg asked Commissioner Crew how COVID-19 has directly impacted the ability to deliver services to inmates. Crews explained that many of their inmate services were discontinued for nearly 12 months. These inmate services are statutorily and constitutionally mandated as they are extremely important for inmates socially and to fulfill their obligations to society prior to their release.

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