It wasn’t uncommon last year to see black gowns and hear the exuberant cheers of graduation day echoing through a small, half-court gymnasium at the Franklin County Regional Jail.
In fact, it happened on average almost every other week — more than at any other correctional institution in the state.
According to figures provided by the Thorn Hill Learning Center, 25 inmates got their general education diplomas (GEDs) in 2018 while incarcerated. That figure surpasses much larger counties — including those home to Lexington and Louisville — with only Hardin and Marion counties coming within grasp of the top spot.
During Tuesday’s Optimist Club meeting at the Office Pub and Deli, Franklin County Jailer Rick Rogers announced the figures and said it was one of his most satisfying accomplishments since taking office in 2015 because an inmate GED program can reduce recidivism.
“It gives people an opportunity,” he told The State Journal. “They can take a negative situation in their lives and turn it into something beneficial.”
Rogers attributed the success of the program, though, to teachers with Thorn Hill Learning Center, 700 Leslie Ave., who are willing to dedicate their time to getting inmates a fresh start.
Rita Rector, learning center director, said the secret to success is access.
“We’re successful because (Rogers) lets us in and allows us to work,” she said, noting that other institutions across the state have been less receptive to education efforts. “We have great teachers. If we can get (the inmates) hooked on the first test, we can get them through graduation.”
Rector said that typically culminates with the jail also allowing inmates to have something tantamount to a graduation party with a hat and gown, cake and family visitors.
The program’s GED incentives not only promise more job opportunities on the outside but also an early release date by as many as 60 days.
Rogers said that has also helped somewhat with decreasing the capacity of the crowded jail, which has run out of bunks for inmates during peak traffic.
“When all the bunks are taken, you get a cot in the hallway to wait for a bunk to open up,” he told the Optimists.
Rogers said one solution for overpopulation could be a new jail. He said Franklin County Fiscal Court members have been receptive to the idea, but a price tag has yet to be calculated.
“The life expectancy of a jail is 30 years, and we’re on it,” he said. “Our jail needs to be upgraded. It was state-of-the-art in 1986, but it is lacking.”
Another possible solution to decreasing the jail population has begun at the statewide level with legislative discussions about bail reform. That would allow non-violent, non-sex-crime offenders to be released on their own recognizance instead of being held on bond.
Kentucky Judicial Committee officials estimate the commonwealth incarcerates about 37,000 low-level offenders for an average of 109 days every year, costing the state about $120 million.
Rogers said his figures fluctuate between 15 and 20 people who remain in the jail for low-level offenses over a weekend at a time. He said it is rare for someone to remain held on bond for close to 100 days, although he agreed bail reform would free up space in the jail.
Regarding a bail-reform bill brewing in the 2019 General Assembly, though, Rogers said he is cautious about the way it will be worded. He supported it to decrease the incarcerated populations but said it could usurp judges’ authority if not handled properly.
“You have to give the judges discretion on a bond,” he said.
Asked if pending medical marijuana legislation could also be a tool for decreasing the jail population, Rogers said it would only be minimal.
“When I started 20 years ago in this game, marijuana and cocaine were prevalent,” he said. “The heroin and meth coming in now is astronomical. (Medical marijuana) would have very little impact on the jail population.”