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Metro Council committee grills jail director on three deaths in a week

Note: This story involves details about a suicide method. If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Louisville Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark was in Metro Council chambers Wednesday to explain to the Public Safety Committee the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three people while in custody last week. He said one of the deaths could require more than routine investigations.

Committee members said they wanted to understand three things: how the deaths happened, why they happened and what steps would be taken moving forward. 

Clark said two of the people that died in the jail — 59-year-old Kenneth Hall and 34-year-old Rickitta Smith — had medical issues. While an official cause of death is not yet known, Clark said Hall is believed to have died from heart disease complications and Smith appeared to have suffered a seizure. A third person incarcerated there, Stephanie Dunbar, died by suicide over the weekend, he said. 

Council President David James, a Democrat representing District 6, questioned Clark about whether a staffing shortage at the jail was to blame for the deaths. Officials have said staffing levels at the jail are currently short about 15-20%.

“Do you believe if you had proper staffing, that [the suicide] could have been prevented?” James asked.

Clark refused to speculate on whether the deaths could have been avoided.

“I think we owe it to the investigative process, and when it concludes we’ll take it from there,” he said. 

The jail is currently conducting an investigation into the deaths, alongside a separate investigation by the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit. He also said he’s asked the FBI to conduct a civil rights investigation into one of the deaths, although he wouldn't specify which one. 

A representative for the FBI’s Louisville field office declined to confirm or deny any investigation.

Council members also questioned Clark about whether guards were conducting enough checks on people incarcerated there. 

Dunbar, who officials say hung herself from a vent using her jumpsuit, was moved into a single-person cell after getting into two fights. Clark said the jail’s policy requires guards to check on people at least every 30 minutes.

District 23 Council Member James Peden, a Republican, said he found it troubling that Dunbar was left alone for so long.

“We’re looking at almost a 15- to 20-minute process that this woman was able to do what she did, and no one wandered by?” Peden said. 

Clark said staffing levels would not change the fact that 30 minutes or fewer is the standard for conducting rounds. But Metro Corrections Union President Daniel Johnson, who also attended the meeting, told the committee that he believed adequate staffing could have prevented the suicide.

“I think there is an absolute correlation between the level of care that we can provide and the level of observation to our staffing numbers,” he said. “If we have enough people there working, we could check on these folks every 10 minutes.”

Johnson said there were only two corrections workers on duty in the area where Dunbar died. He said two positions on that shift were left vacant: one person who would be in charge of observation and one “tablet officer” who would have documented the incarcerated people’s behavior and mood. 

The committee chair, Democratic District 1 Council Member Jessica Green, asked Clark to send Metro Council a request for anything he believes could help prevent future in-custody deaths. She said it’s likely Clark will be called to speak to the committee again. 

During the meeting, Mayor Greg Fischer announced in a press release that his office and the Metro Corrections Union reached a deal to provide an 8% pay raise for jail workers. The agreement, which still needs to be voted on by union members, would also increase the starting pay for corrections officers. 

Fischer said the hope is that the pay increases will allow Metro Corrections to retain its current staff and boost recruitment. 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers.

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

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