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Inmates Cope With Near-Freezing Temperatures In Louisville Jail

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

The Louisville jail’s heating system is hobbling under cold temperatures, forcing some inmates to face near-freezing temperatures in their cells.

A Facebook post described freezing temperatures in the jail being met with blankets, hot water bottles and health checks by jail staffers. It said "no one is fixing the heat," and described the current temperature as "38 degrees and inmate[s] are freezing."

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections' assistant director Steve Durham said the post isn't correct: the heating system isn't broken. But it is old, and he said parts of the jail are very cold.

“These systems — they’re old … we continue to pour money into maintenance and repair but we just can’t make them any younger,” Durham said. “We’re always challenged by the deterioration of age and overuse.”

Durham said the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units used to heat the building were built in the 1950s, and don’t function well when temperatures drop in Louisville. That translates to areas of the building nearing 40 degrees and prompted staffers to distribute more blankets to inmates. He said in a subsequent written statement that most of the building is hovering around 60 degrees in most of the jail's housing units.

In a press release sent Tuesday afternoon, Durham elaborated.

"Over the weekend a piece of HVAC equipment at the Hall of Justice was not functioning properly," he wrote. "That equipment is not maintained by Metro Corrections but is maintained by Metro Facilities Management.  Some temperatures were recorded in the 40’s in that space above the Hall of Justice. Metro Facilities Management contacted a vendor to repair the equipment."

Durham is unsure if the department has formally requested new units for the jail, but said money is constantly appropriated to repair the ailing machines and buildings. He estimated about $300,000 has been sunk into the system since 2016.

But civil rights lawyer Greg Belzley said the news inmates are being exposed to near-freezing temperatures in some jail areas is “disturbing."

“Forty degrees day, after day, after day, when you can’t get out of it and you can’t get warm, is torture,” Belzley said. “I think it’s an embarrassment, and I think any sentient human being with a lick of human principle would regard it as embarrassing, and an embarrassment to the community and to the government.”

He said inmates may potentially have a case to bring a lawsuit against the jail under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. No one has contacted Belzley about such a lawsuit, he said.

But as long as temperatures hover near zero, the Louisville Metro Corrections facility's heating system will struggle to warm the building.

“It happened last year, it’s going to happen again next year,” Steve Durham said, speaking of the heating system's inefficiency. “When we have a cold snap, everybody’s heating system has a hard time keeping up with it. We’re no different.”

Durham said one solution could be building a new jail, but Belzley slammed that idea as one that's partly to blame for the number of people currently incarcerated in American jails.

Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, said a new jail is unlikely and is “not a priority” because of its exorbitant costs. He said a new jail could cost around $300 million.

This post has been updated.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.