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Advocates call on Louisville mayor, officials to take action after string of jail deaths

Amber Duke, deputy director of the ACLU of Kentucky, speaks at a press conference on the recent deaths at the Louisville Metro jail.
Amber Duke, deputy director of the ACLU of Kentucky, speaks at a press conference on the recent deaths at the Louisville Metro jail.

Criminal justice reform advocates are calling on Louisville Metro officials to address growing concerns about overcrowding and understaffing at the city jail after three people incarcerated there died last week.

The ACLU of Kentucky and local advocacy groups held a press conference Monday morning, demanding Mayor Greg Fischer, Metro Council and local prosecutors take immediate steps to alleviate overcrowding. 

Fischer told WFPL News on Monday jail staffing is currently down 15-20%. Data from late October show the facility is housing around 200 more people than it should. And Metro Corrections workers and their union recently called conditions at the facility a “dumpster fire.” 

Carla Wallace, a co-founder of the group Showing Up For Racial Justice, laid the blame at the feet of city officials and the court system.

“Right now, Mayor Fischer could decide that police issue citations for non-violent offenses instead of dragging people down to the jail, which at this point could mean a death sentence,” Wallace said. “The deaths of the people are on Mayor Fischer’s hands.”

Advocates say they’d like to see an end to the practice of incarcerating the many people who end up in the city jail because of low-level drug crimes or other non-violent offenses. 

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, said the jail is not equipped to be a drug rehabilitation center nor a mental health facility.

“As someone in long-term recovery, I can tell you that the solution to our drug epidemic is not in a cell at 6th and Liberty [streets],” he said. 

Njuguna also said many Louisvillians end up in jail because they aren’t able to afford the bail set by judges. A snapshot of the jail population from mid-October showed that 15% of the people incarcerated there pre-trial had a bail of less than $5,000.

“Freedom should not be ... a commodity available only to those who can purchase it,’ he added.

Metro Corrections Union President Daniel Johnson, who is a sergeant at the jail, spoke with members of the media after the press conference. He said the lack of staff combined with overcrowding contributed to the three deaths last week. 

The first of these deaths occurred last Monday. Jail officials said 59-year-old Kenneth Hall was found unresponsive in one of the housing units. He was taken to University of Louisville Hospital, where he later died. Rickitta Smith, 34, died on Friday after being rushed to the hospital. Officials said she appeared to be having a seizure. 

Then, on Saturday, 48-year-old Stephanie Dunbar allegedly died by suicide while in jail custody, Corrections assistant director Steve Durham said. 

“When you have two people working in an area with 200 people in our custody, it’s hard to know those people and if there’s been a change [in their behavior],” Johnson said. “If you’re not going in these living areas, spending a little time to find out what’s going on with people housed there, we don’t get a chance to pick up on things like that.”

The deaths came two-and-a-half months after a mass overdose at the jail that resulted in five women being taken to the hospital.

Advocates said they intend to draft a letter to Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell and Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine to demand prosecutors stop requesting cash bail for people who don’t pose a risk to community safety. Advocates are also asking officials to ensure there is adequate staff available to support people with a substance abuse disorder or who may be having a mental health crisis.

Mayor Greg Fischer said Monday morning the deaths were a tragedy, but that it appears that two of the people who died had “significant underlying health conditions.”

“The condition of the people arriving at the jail is very unpredictable, and their ages can be very unpredictable,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s related to COVID or not.”

Fischer said he is not considering terminating Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark, and that he is not under investigation.

The Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit is investigating each of the deaths, which is routine in cases where people die while in custody. 

On the issue of understaffing, Fischer said that the jail was short one staff member when Dunbar died on Saturday. He said he plans to continue a recruitment and retention push, including one-time bonuses for current Metro Corrections workers and new recruits

Criminal justice reform advocates say that recruiting new jail workers will take months, and it wouldn’t meet the immediate need to improve conditions at the jail. 

Reporter Aprile Rickert contributed to this story. 

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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