Life was just fine for Tina Quarels at the Otter Creek women’s prison in eastern Kentucky — rules were relaxed, she didn’t have to work and the staff was familiar.
“It was more like a family setting,” said Quarels, who is serving 20 years for murder and arson in Jefferson County.
That setting came to an end at the Otter Creek Correctional Complex after a sex scandal involving prisoners and guards at the Corrections Corporation of America-owned prison, which pushed the state to relocate hundreds of female inmates 377 miles away to the state-run Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia.
At first, it seemed all that needed to be done were things like swapping out urinals with toilets and retrofitting showers to accommodate women. However, it’s turned into a more complex and stressful adjustment. The complex is a prison farm — and now that women are the ones working, inmates and officials are having to adapt to new rules and a new reality.
“It’s been an experience,” said 36-year-old Tracy Arthur of Ashland, who is serving seven years for manslaughter and works on the prison farm. “Those of us who had been at Otter Creek for a while, we didn’t do much. Therefore we had to learn to get up and move a lot more.”
Kentucky ordered female inmates moved from Otter Creek in January after news of the scandal, which included widespread allegations that several of the mostly male corrections officers had sex with inmates. Some were charged criminally.
Western Kentucky Correctional Complex budgeted about $590,000 for renovations, with work continuing in some areas through the summer. The early work consisted, in large part, of plumbing changes and trying to hire more female corrections officers. Officials wanted more than half the staff to be women.
The first female inmates arrived in April. A group of about 200 male inmates were still housed in minimum security outside the razor-wire fencing of the main prison complex until June.
Corn, soybeans and hay are grown on the 2,450-acre prison grounds in part to feed about 200 cattle kept there. Inmates grew 70,000 bushels of corn in 2009, using 10,000 to 15,000 bushels to feed the cattle, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said. The rest sold at market for about $3 a bushel, putting about $30,000 profit into the state’s general fund.
Lamb said the inmates were moved to Western Kentucky Correctional Complex, even though it had no history of housing women, because of its size. There wasn’t enough space for them at local jails or the other all-female prison in the state, Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women near Louisville.
The western Kentucky prison stands in stark contrast to Otter Creek, which sits on the side of a mountain, with no farming, limited recreational space and almost no views from the yard.
“We just have a lot of room, a lot of room to breathe,” said 39-year-old Stephanie Spitser, who is serving life in prison for murder and kidnapping.
But the open space came with restrictions the inmates weren’t used to — regular head counts, strict uniform regulations and mandates that inmates show up for work on the farm. Quarels said the inmates call it “boot camp.”
And there are small differences — the women don’t get the deodorant and shampoo they had before and don’t have a hair stylist — that are disheartening to some inmates.