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Independent report finds Louisville’s jail is ‘obsolete and poorly designed,’ and needs more unified leadership

Exterior of Louisville Metro Corrections.

Louisville’s jail is ill-designed and poorly managed, according to a recently completed report on the downtown facility.

The report came at the request of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who ordered an independent review of the Metro Department of Corrections, including the jail, in February. The city hired independent consultant Gary Raney, a retired sheriff of Boise, Idaho’s Ada County office, and his firm GAR Inc. Justice Consulting, which offers jail assessment services. 

In a letter included with the report and dated Aug. 12, Raney said he found “many opportunities” to make the jail a safer and more secure environment, noting that he had been on-site for three days. He wrote that he was equally concerned about “the customs and practices” of Louisville Metro’s Department of Corrections, which is responsible for approximately 1,400 incarcerated individuals. 

 

He said, while he found staff who are engaged with the work they do at the jail, “many of them appear overshadowed by more apathetic and unmotivated staff, who are sometimes their supervisors.”

“My perception is the current culture in the LMDC does not promote engagement and innovation as well as it should,” Raney wrote in the report. “Even more disturbing, there appears to be a tolerance for poor performance and misconduct, one of the most harmful behaviors that can exist. If destructive behaviors are tolerated, the LMDC will never be the jail that you want it to be.”

Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, shared the report with WFPL News. She said Fischer and his team are looking over the report’s findings “for continued performance improvement opportunities.” 

“In the meantime, [LMDC director Jerry] Collins and his team have been focused on making changes to improve the immediate needs of the jail around suicide prevention, drug interdiction, and mental health,” Wethington wrote in an email to WFPL News.

Metro Council members, who launched their own investigation into LMDC last February, have also received the report, Wethington said.

The city jail has been under intense scrutiny from elected officials, advocates and community members over the last year, urging the mayor and other officials to take swift action to address issues like overcrowding. Eleven people have died while incarcerated at the downtown facility since late last November. Jail officials attributed a portion of those deaths to suicide. Additionally, a number of people in custody of Metro Corrections were hospitalized after drug overdoses.

After public cries for him to be removed and votes of no confidence from Metro Council and corrections staff, former jail director Dwayne Clark announced his retirement in the spring. 

The report’s recommendations

Raney said the physical infrastructure of Louisville’s jail is “obsolete and poorly designed,” which hampers LMDC staff’s ability to see and hear activity within jail cells well. He described cells that are dimly lit and not “suicide resistant,” and said the jail did not comply with ADA regulations. He also found that the facility did not have good systems in place to prevent “the internal flow of contraband between inmates and staff.”

He recommended a more extensive camera system throughout the jail, especially in single-person cells. The document reported that only 16 of 226 cells had cameras. Bars, tables, benches or any kind of fixture that can be tied to should be replaced in cells used for suicide watch, he said, adding that, overall, LMDC should reduce its use of isolation cells.

“It is well-documented that isolation has negative outcomes,” Raney wrote.

The department is also lacking in critical safety practices, he said, attributing that deficiency to “inconsistent supervision and enforcement of policies and inmate rules.”

“Observation checks are routinely late, poorly conducted and fraudulently logged. It is worth noting that the fraudulent entries are a Class D felony in Kentucky,” Raney said.

Later in the report, Raney expressed concern over staff’s ability to work with high-risk individuals.

“Staff seem poorly trained or apathetic about other high-risk inmate behaviors,” he said. “There is a lack of awareness and knowledge about managing mental illness, suicide warnings, victimization indicators and other concerns that should trigger a response from staff.”

His recommendations in this area included a more unified, clear and consistent approach from jail leadership when it comes to staff expectations and enforcement of those expectations. He also suggested increased staff education and better processes for investigating major events at the jail; he found the current process for investigations “seriously insufficient.”

 

“Today the LMDC is not tracking suicides, suicide attempts, uses of force and many other basic measures,” he wrote.

Raney noted that the biggest challenge will be changing the culture throughout the department. 

“LMDC leadership and supervision have lacked professional unity, common vision and commitment to quality,” he wrote as an observation in the report. “There was no evidence of a collective vision for the future or strategic thinking with shared goals, priorities or quality assurance processes that should be in place.”

He’d like to see changes like creating and implementing a leadership strategic plan, engaging staff and people who are incarcerated in the cultural changes, and rewriting the policy manual. 

Council president David James, a Democrat who represents District 6, which includes the Algonquin, Park Hill and Old Louisville neighborhoods, has been vocal about problems at the jail. As of Monday morning, he was still reading through the details of the report, but said he believes some of the recommended changes can be made easily and swiftly.

“As relates to leadership at the jail and holding employees accountable, I think is something that director Collins has been working towards,” James told WFPL News. “Culture change is something that's not going to happen overnight… But I feel confident that we're moving in the right direction.”

In fact, in his report, Raney pointed to research that shows overhauling the culture of a corrections department can take 18 months to two years.

James said, with the completion of this review, it’s now up to Mayor Fischer to take action.

“He's in charge of the jail. He's in charge of the police department,” James said. “All executive authority rests with him to fix this, and he has about 89 days left to get it fixed.”

Metro Council is still awaiting the results of its own review into LMDC, but James expects to receive those findings in a little more than a month.

“We will examine it and have some hearings about that, but again the authority to make those changes rests entirely with the mayor,” he said. 

The responsibility of ushering in change at the department and determining whether and how to build a new jail will ultimately be inherited by whomever voters elect to be Louisville’s next mayor in November, James continued. 

"The new mayor, whoever it is, should have public safety at the top of their list,” he said.

Stephanie Wolf is LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter. Email Stephanie at swolf@lpm.org.