New Louisville jail director discusses in-custody deaths, understaffing and other challenges
When Jerry Collins took over leadership of Louisville’s downtown jail in April, the facility was in crisis.
The former director, Dwayne Clark, retired after there were eight in-custody deaths over the span of five months. A ninth person, 44-year-old Norman Sheckles, died of a suspected drug overdose in early July after Clark’s departure.
A 20-year veteran of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, Collins had served as the commander of the Clark County, Indiana jail for the past year before coming back to the River City. He says he knows leading a beleaguered department is a difficult task, but he’s up to the challenge.
A little more than three months into his tenure, WFPL News sat down with Collins to discuss how he’s trying to prevent more loss of life and improve morale for a workforce that faces overcrowding and understaffing. A transcript of the interview is below:
Roldan: LMDC has had eight people who have died in custody since last November. When you look at some nearby cities like Nashville and Indianapolis, that’s about three times what they've seen. You obviously weren't in charge here during those deaths, but what can you do now, at this point, to ensure that those stop, and the community stops seeing that headline every month or two months?
Collins: I knew it was gonna be a challenge coming back, but the advantage I had was knowing this agency and some of the things that we could do differently in modern corrections: adding more programming, bringing in a psychologist, changing the physical [layout of the building]. The physical plan is very challenging. So, we're adding more suicide prevention cells, locking down the drugs coming in…all these go hand in hand. Locking down a facility, adding security upgrades to keep the drugs out of the facility, getting more programming and activities for the folks that are incarcerated. And focusing on officer wellness, also. I think that, generally in the profession, has not been dealt with universally. So we really wanted to focus on inmate wellness and officer wellness. Then, from the outside, really immediately change some of the security problems that we have at LMDC: adding intelligence officers, adding a canine unit, locking down some of the ways that [drugs] get in. Taking some of the commissary off-site. There's a million things, you know, that we could do immediately and that's what we're trying to do. So, it's a lot of work. It's a challenge. But the staff has been great and they've been up to the challenge. And we'll continue to do that.
Roldan: You've been in this position now for about three months. So obviously, you're relatively new. But are any of those things already in the works?
Collins: Yes, we are actually. The new scanner goes online Monday.
Roldan: What do you mean by new scanner?
Collins: Body scanner. We have added an additional body scanner between the main jail and the Hall of Justice [courthouse] to increase security there. We've locked down food slots. We're currently adding plexiglass where there were bars to reduce suicide. As we speak, we're installing suicide prevention beds in the mental health ward, adding seven of those.
My goal is, by the end of the year, to have 350 to 400 inmates involved in programs, which makes for a safer environment for them and makes for better reentry into the community. It [also] makes it a safer environment for our officers.
Roldan: A lot of the things that you just highlighted there are really aimed at preventing drugs from getting into the jail, preventing overdoses. Outside of the in-custody deaths, there was a mass overdose event, I believe, last year. Why do you think that drugs have become such a big problem at the jail, and how do you try to prevent that?
Collins: I won't go into all the security details on doing that, but there's a multitude of ways. The reason for switching over to digital mail is because that was a huge way of getting drugs into the facility. You know, I'm really glad you asked that question because one of the things the community has to know, and you see it in the community, is synthetic synthetic opioids, fentanyl, a very small amount can kill someone. It's very hard to detect if someone has it in a baggie and swallows it. The body scanners are very good, but there's such a small amount that can kill someone and it becomes very dangerous. Just like the 14% increase of [overdose] deaths across the state, everything that happens in your community is magnified and a jail setting.
Roldan: And you had talked about corrections officers and the need to address their well being and their health. One of the things that the community heard last year at a press conference, or a community meeting, with corrections officers was there are some concerns about understaffing. There were also concerns about equipment and facilities upgrades that are needed. What can you do to address some of those personnel and infrastructure issues?
Collins: I like to thank the mayor and [Metro] Council for approving our budget. We added $3.7 million for those infrastructure upgrades. And as far as officer wellness, we've already stood up our Peer Support Team, headed by Dr. Lederman, and that's just being utilized. Morale is up. We got our biggest recruiting numbers in years coming. We started a retiree program to bring some retirees back for the transport team, because we average about six clinics a day that we have to take out. That pushes officers back inside [the jail]. We're currently about to start a lateral program for folks that can come over and have a shorter academy and come in at the pay rate of their years of experience, which is a huge deal. I'm hoping by the end of the year that we will have the best [staffing] numbers we've had in five years. And I'm completely confident in that.
Roldan: Last September there was a weekend that got publicized quite a bit, Metro Council really harped on it when former Director [Dwayne] Clark came before Metro Council, where there was just a handful of officers who were assigned to work that weekend and there were folks who are on their third shift. Is that something that you're hoping we're not going to see again?
Collins: I'm hoping our problem is that we get grievances from officers not being able to get overtime. Right now, you know, the officers work doubles two times a week. You got to have numbers to run a jail. We're doing a lot better, and folks are pitching in and, again, our recruiting is up. We got $8,000 signing bonuses, a $3,000 moving bonus if you're moving from out of the area. And it's really helped. We've really tried to get over all the great things that these folks are doing out in the public. We welcome folks and we want to publicize what our staff’s doing. They do an amazing job every day. They're police officers, firefighters, EMTs and social workers. That's a tough job and a job that takes a toll. They need to be recognized for what they do.
Roldan: At the start of this series of in-custody deaths that began last year, a number of community stakeholders came together and they were pushing for reforms. Mainly what they said was they wanted to see less people who were picked up for drug offenses or nonviolent offenses in jail, and they wanted to see better mental health and medical resources. What do you think of those demands?
Collins: Well, just so the public knows, I invited all those folks in when I first got here and we now have quarterly meetings. I agree that we need to have folks that are in jail that we are scared of, we don't need to have folks in jail that we're mad at. So yes, there needs to be better diversion programs in the community. My message is not gonna change on that.
The folks in here on $500 bonds, to the courts credit, the prosecutors and defenders, we've really been taking care of that. I have welcomed in The Bail Project. I have an officer assigned to take them around. [The Bail Project] has increased their numbers on getting folks out. We've worked on the mental health evaluations that keep people in jail. We're doing five times as many [evaluations] now here on site with KCPC. So all those things are working to our advantage, but we can still do better.
We showed it during COVID. Literally, the whole justice system showed that we can get those numbers [of people incarcerated] down. I think our numbers were down to 1,100 [people being held at the jail.] (Note: Collins currently estimates the jail’s average daily population is now around 1,400) If we could do it then, then that would be a positive lesson learned during COVID: that there's a way to do it.
Roldan: During the pandemic, programming inside the jail and re-entry preparation programs for people who are incarcerated here kind of disappeared. I know there's some competing ideas in the corrections industry about rehabilitation versus the need for security and whatnot. Where do you fall in your thinking on what the jail can do to really ensure that people are prepared to re-enter the community and not just end up right back here?
Collins: What we can do here is have wraparound services to address the needs of addiction, to address needs of houselessness, to address needs of mental health. And then have that continuity of care as they go to the community. And what that does is help the community. Most folks in jail are not staying for a long time, they're going back into our community in Louisville. So, jails are an intersection where, for a lot of folks, it’s their first ability to get help, or know how to get help. So, not only having those resources here, but providing the resources in the community when they get out, makes for a healthier community.
Roldan: Director Collins, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. I know you're slightly new on the job here.
Collins: I want to thank you and thank everybody that’s listening. Thank you very much.
Transcript was lightly edited for clarity.