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As deaths mount, officials are laying the groundwork for replacing the Louisville jail

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · As deaths mount, officials are laying the groundwork for replacing the Louisville jail

Louisville jail leaders and city officials have quietly kickstarted conversations about replacing the facility, a proposal that has a potentially hefty price tag for taxpayers.

The push for a new jail comes amid an ongoing crisis: Ten people have died in custody since last November. The Louisville Metro Department of Corrections has also struggled to stem the flow of drugs into the building. Officials supporting the proposal say part of the problem is the 54-year-old building at the corner of East Liberty and South 6th Streets. They say its crumbling infrastructure and outdated design are at least partially responsible for the current conditions, which pose a risk to workers and the people incarcerated there.

Meanwhile, organizations fighting for reform in response to people dying are preparing to launch an opposition campaign, arguing the money could be better spent on community resources. 

Jail officials say they plan to make their case for a new jail to Louisville Metro Council — and the public — in the coming months. 

The case for a new jail

The four-story building was originally constructed in 1968 to house offices for the Metropolitan Sewer District. It was retrofitted 23 years ago to become the county jail and now houses an average of 1,400 people a day.

On a recent tour, LMDC Major Darrell Goodlett explained some of the challenges the office-building-turned-jail presents. As Goodlett walked through the narrow hallway leading into the male housing units, he pointed out all of the corners. Unlike many modern jails, where officers can observe each housing unit from different angles, what you can see here is limited.

“You have to be standing right on top [of a unit] to see it,” Goodlett said. 

Many of the general population dorms are overcrowded, with some people forced to sleep on mattresses atop plastic “boats” that look like oversized lids for storage bins.

On the medical floor, where people with physical or mental illnesses are held, space is limited. None of the cells are large enough to accommodate a hospital bed, meaning officers have to arrange frequent emergency runs. There is little room for one-on-one therapy, making it a challenge for contractors from Wellpath to provide mental health treatment.

“When this jail was designed, I wish they would have kept the receipt so they could return it,” said LMDC Director Jerry Collins in an interview.

LMDC was already in crisis when Collins took over in April, succeeding Dwayne Clark, who had announced his retirement amid calls for his resignation and a vote of no confidence from Metro Council.

Just a few months into Collins’ tenure, two more people have died while in custody of jail staff. One death was a suspected overdose, and another man died just last week after attempting suicide inside the facility. 

Collins said there’s community pressure to move away from simply warehousing people and toward addressing education, mental health and addiction issues. But he said Louisville’s current jail makes that a challenge.

“As the needs change, we have to keep moving forward,” he said. “We really need to think about the need for a facility that is designed for modern corrections.”

Collins is all in on the push to build a new jail. 

Back in 2016, he helped California-based consulting firm CLG produce an assessment of the current facility. The report was commissioned by then-jail Director Mark Bolton, and was supposed to be a wake-up call for city officials. A larger conversation about building a new jail never materialized after the report was published, though. 

CLG identified issues including:

  • An intake area that is insufficient for the number of people being booked into the jail
  • Numerous door locks that appeared to be sticking or missing parts
  • One-on-one therapy sessions at the door of a cell or at a bedside with very little privacy
  • Limited video surveillance 
  • A leaking roof
  • Old plumbing infrastructure not designed to accommodate hundreds of residents

Some of those issues have since been addressed. For example, the jail has more cameras and Corrections officers are now required to wear body cameras. But many of the issues persist.

The CLG report concluded that renovating the jail was not likely to bring the facility up to modern standards. Consultants estimated that building a new, 1,796-bed jail would cost the city nearly $300 million. 

“A big, huge cage”

The quiet crawl toward building a new jail has local activists and organizers preparing for a fight. 

The ACLU of Kentucky leads a coalition of nonprofits and grassroots groups that came together out of concern for the people dying at the Louisville jail. Their main focus has been “de-incarceration,” or ensuring that people arrested for low-level, non-violent crimes don’t sit in jail while they await trial. 

Kungu Njuguna, the ACLU’s policy strategist, said utilizing alternatives to incarceration and lowering the jail’s population could help alleviate some of the issues. 

“While you want to talk about building a building, we want to talk about helping people and making sure they’re not even getting there so you don’t need this building,” he said.

Jail leaders often ask for more funding by talking about LMDC being the largest drug detox and mental health facility in Jefferson County. But Njuguna said he would rather see $300 million go to organizations providing those services without locking people away.

“Just as easy as it is for an individual to get a jail cell, we should have a bed in this community for people who are having mental health issues or substance use disorder,” he said. “That would make a substantial change, as opposed to building a big, huge cage.”

Carla Wallace, co-founder of the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, echoed many of Njunguna’s concerns. In recent years, her group has gone door-to-door in communities across Louisville advocating for ending cash bail and most pre-trial detention. 

Wallace said, in all of those conversations, no one has ever talked about wanting a larger jail.

“There’s affordable housing needs, there are youth programming needs, mental health needs, you know, so many other things,” she said. 

Wallace accuses jail leaders and city officials of attempting to shift blame for the spate of in-custody deaths and drug overdoses onto the outdated facility instead of taking responsibility. She said the only people who would benefit from building a new jail, rather than investing in alternatives, are developers and politicians.

“It’s a huge, massive construction project and somebody gets that money, right?” Wallace said. “That’s very popular, politically. Everybody wants a big project, including the developers.”

The ACLU-led coalition is reaching out to organizers from Los Angeles and elsewhere, where opposition campaigns have successfully halted plans to construct new jails. They hope to share notes and strategies. 

Momentum among officials is building

Creating a new jail in Louisville will take years — and buy-in from top city officials.

Some, like Metro Council President David James, say they are already on board. A retired police officer, James said he is all too familiar with the LMDC building. The Democrat, who represents Old Louisville, said serious conversations around design and cost will have to wait until residents elect a new mayor in November. Mayor Greg Fischer is term-limited after leading the city for the past 12 years.

“[Metro Council] has control of the purse strings and we could put money in, but the mayor has to spend it,” he said. “So you gotta have a conversation with the next administration.

Democratic nominee Craig Greenberg and Republican Bill Dieruf both tried to secure the backing of the Jefferson County Fraternal Order of Police Presidents Council earlier this year.

Daniel Johnson heads the union for Corrections officers that’s part of the Presidents Council. Johnson said that, as part of the endorsement interview process, they asked Dieruf and Greenberg about the possibility of building a new jail. While neither fully committed, Johnson said both seemed supportive.

In a statement, Greenberg said he had toured the facility to see the problems.

“In addition to improving the facility, we must also improve programs to help prevent recidivism,” Greenberg said. “The city should provide additional support for programs for incarcerated individuals and their families, including mental health care and treatment.”

In response to questions from WFPL News, Dieruf said: “After I am elected, all Metro-owned facilities will be reviewed and assessed to determine their viability and need for improvements.”

Along with the outdated facility, the Corrections union has tried to bring public attention to overcrowding and understaffing at the jail, a dangerous combination. During a weekend last September, union leaders said there were an average of 15 officers on duty for 1,600 people incarcerated there. Safe staffing levels, they said, would have been more like 55 or 60 officers.

At least some planning for a new jail is already underway. 

LMDC got an extra $3.7 million in the capital budget approved earlier this year. Louisville’s Chief of Public Safety, Matt Golden, said in an email that most of the money will go toward upgrading the existing facility to better address drug smuggling and prevent suicides. A small portion of the funding, Golden said, will be used to commission a facilities study similar to the 2016 report.

“We will also maintain the efforts we have started over the last several months to increase staffing and reduce inmate populations through significant efforts with our justice partners and under the leadership of Director Collins,” he said. “Yet these new expenditures will not address the fundamental facility challenges.”

Some state lawmakers who represent Louisville are also showing interest in the future of the city’s jail. 

Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes led some of his colleagues on a tour of the facility last month, including state Sen. Julie Raque Adams. Nemes said that while he isn’t interested in having the state pay for what is Louisville’s responsibility, he’s interested in helping it get done.

“The building wasn’t constructed to be a jail, and it’s neither efficient nor safe,” Nemes said. “Bottom line, it’s going to fall in the new mayor’s lap.” 

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