LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Studies show it’s one of the cheapest and most productive ways to control prison crowding and reduce recidivism.

A state law gives Kentucky inmates 90 days of “good time credit” off their sentences for taking educational, drug treatment, vocational or other classes, giving them skills needed to get a job and better navigate the outside world when they are released.

The classes saved taxpayers more than $1.8 million in 2015 and more than $2 million in 2016, state reports found.

But, by many accounts, the credit program in Kentucky is in complete disarray.

The state Department of Corrections doesn’t have a reliable system to keep track of inmates who have taken classes and earned time off their sentence and, as a result, have unlawfully detained scores of inmates months or even years after they were supposed to be released, according to a federal lawsuit.

“This issue involves potentially hundreds of inmates who are sitting in prison when they have earned their right to be home, working and serving as a taxpaying member of society,” said Kentucky attorney Greg Belzley, who along with his wife, Camille Bathurst, originally filed the lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court in 2012. “It’s absolute chaos.”

Even judges presiding in the ongoing lawsuit have largely agreed, criticizing the state’s handling of the program, noting there is no course catalog of available classes, no reliable accounting of credits upon completion or any proper record keeping. 

“The DOC administration of the (program) is arbitrary and capricious and would best be described as an abuse of the discretion afforded” to the state, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd wrote in a November 2017 order. He has called the state’s system used to track inmates and ensure they are given course credit “inaccurate and unreliable.”

In one 2014 hearing, Judge Shepherd asked an inmate why he did not receive credit for a class he completed.

“They haven’t given me a detailed explanation other than that they have the right to decide who gets what,” the inmate testified. The inmates pay to take many of the courses.  

Another inmate testified he had completed 20 classes while incarcerated but was only given credit for six. He testified that corrections officials asked him for certificates proving he had completed the classes. Some classes do not give certificates and inmates often lose their certificates or mail them home, Belzley said.

And state officials have acknowledged in court they do not have specific guidelines or regulations governing how the program works -- inmates, for example are given credit for some classes but not others with no notice -- or a reliable way of tracking the program.

In addition, a corrections official gave conflicting testimony and could not tell a judge exactly who was responsible for awarding or denying credit and handling mistakes when an inmate is not properly given time off their sentence for completing a program. Inmates have for years filed grievances with the state about the issue, according to court records.

The corrections department policy, Shepherd wrote, rests “wholly on the subjective judgments of its employees, without reference to any statute or administrative regulation.”

When the agency could not provide a definitive list of the classes inmates had taken and whether they had been improperly denied good time credit, Shepherd last November called the department “derelict in its responsibility” and ordered it to hire an outside auditor within 90 days to complete a comprehensive list of every inmate who had taken courses since 2007.

This September, when DOC asked for more time, after the case had been moved to federal court, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that “because of the lengthy history of delay in this case,” he would fine the state $1,000 a day as a “financial motivation” if an auditor wasn’t hired in 30 days.

After 60 days, the fine would climb to $5,000 a day, Tatenhove ruled.

DOC complied and hired an auditor last week. WDRB News has filed an open record’s request to determine the cost and scope of the audit.

The auditor, KPMG Inc., is “basically going to have to reconstruct (records) from scratch, to find out who is entitled to be released, who has been held too long,” Belzley said.

The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet deferred comment to the corrections department, which provided an email response.

“While we can’t provide details due to pending litigation, the department is taking every step necessary to ensure the program receives a thorough review by independent auditors and that inmates are properly credited for all classes, both in the past and moving forward,” spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said.

“Last week, we finalized a contract with KPMG, one of the most respected auditing firms in the nation, to lead this effort.”

Inmate motivation

Until 2010, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System was in charge of correctional education programs in the prison system, and it ran smoothly.

KCTCS monitored which inmates had completed classes and how much good time they earned, using a computerized system and software that could quickly produce a transcript of every inmate involved in classes, Judge Shepherd wrote in a one ruling.

When the corrections department took over, the funding of the programs stayed the same but the department did not take the KCTCS software and employees kept records “the best (they) could,” according to court documents.

State officials have repeatedly told the General Assembly that they were improving the records-keeping functions, according to court records. But Belzley said they have done little and, as a result, dampened the incentives for inmates taking the courses.

“How do you think an inmate feels who has been involved in a program in which that KDOC has been thumbing their nose at the law for six years?” Belzley said in an interview.

One inmate, Keith Bramblett, testified during a 2015 hearing that he could either be “deconstructive or constructive” during his time in prison and the classes give him an avenue to make himself “a better person.”

“You know, they recommend to us to take programs every year,” he said. “Then when you take them, they don’t want to give you the entitlements to some of them. They don’t want to give you the benefits.”

When he objected to not getting credit for a class, Bramblett testified a prison official told him to “sue me, see where the bus stops. Take your luck. Take your best shot.”

While some prosecutors and victims’ advocates have argued inmates shouldn’t get good time credit and instead serve their entire sentence, studies have shown that allowing inmates to educate themselves and get out of prison early helps their transition and keeps them from becoming repeat offenders. In addition, the programs encourage good discipline as some of the programs require a clean prison disciplinary record for inmates to participate.

And inmates can lose their good time credit for violations.

State Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said he had not seen the lawsuit but noted the importance of the classes is unquestionable.

“These classes are designed to better prepare inmates to return to our communities, where they will rejoin their families, our neighborhoods and hopefully the workforce,” he said in an interview. “The inmates are going to get out of jail sooner or later, so we all have an incentive to help them improve their lives.”

Asked during a 2014 court hearing whether the program was important to the state, Department of Corrections Education Branch Manager Mary Martha Slemp testified that if it were not, “we would not be spending as much time going back to ensure that everything, when there’s an inquiry, that it’s adequately accounted for.”

But Belzley and Bathurst have repeatedly accused the state of dragging its feet, initially asking Judge Tatenhove to fine the department $10,000 a day until they hired an auditor.

“One thing is clear,” Belzley said. “It is unacceptable to continue with the present system. Unacceptable.”

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