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With 12 in-custody deaths, Louisville activists say better health care needed to address jail crisis

Community activists hold a press conference calling for LMDC to end its contract with healthcare services provider Wellpath on Oct. 4, 2022.
Community activists hold a press conference calling for LMDC to end its contract with healthcare services provider Wellpath on Oct. 4, 2022.

Community activists in Louisville are calling on officials running the downtown jail to cancel their contract with Wellpath, a private health care services provider. 

Deaths of people incarcerated inside of the facility have mounted over the past year, with many suspected to be due to drug overdose or suicide. While activists and community leaders have blamed jail officials for failing to stem the in-custody deaths, they now say Wellpath should take responsibility, too. They argue that the company, which is in charge of the mental and physical health of the people incarcerated at the jail, has clearly failed.

Members from various advocacy groups and nonprofits gathered for a press conference in front of the Department of Corrections facility Tuesday morning. They are all part of the LMDC stakeholders coalition, led by the ACLU of Kentucky. 

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist for the ACLU, said the deaths of incarcerated people who have died by suicide might have been prevented if people in custody were being adequately screened for suicide risk and provided mental health services. He said city officials, prosecutors and judges should also work to decrease the jail’s population.

“Since they cannot give that kind of care, the contract should be ended and that care should be contracted through community-based organizations,” Njuguna said. “We are asking that LMDC do that starting today.”

As Njuguna and others were speaking, jail officials announced that 39-year-old Bashar Ghazawi died of an apparent drug overdose Monday night while in custody. He was the 12th person to die in custody of the Corrections department since last November. 

A jury found Ghazawi guilty of murder hours before his death. He was convicted of shooting his wife in 2018, before turning the gun on himself. He survived his injuries. Ghazawi was due back in court for sentencing Tuesday morning.

According to jail officials, Ghazawi was found unconscious in his dorm unit around 7 p.m. They said officers began live-saving measures and he was transferred to the University of Louisville Hospital where he was pronounced dead. 

Daniel Johnson, who heads the union representing Corrections officers, said in a text message that the people incarcerated in the same housing unit as Ghazawi did not alert officers to his apparent overdose and tried to make it look like he was sleeping. Johnson said the individuals did not utilize the Narcan available inside the housing units. 

LMDC Director Jerry Collins said in a written statement he was “disgusted” that it seemed another person died “because of those who seek to profit by smuggling these dangerous substances into” the jail.

“We will continue to work hard every day to disrupt the drug trafficking that plagues our community and our jail,” Collins said. 

Hearing the news of Ghazawi’s death for the first time, Njuguna said that anyone, regardless of what they’ve done, is worthy of dignity and respect.

“And they are not getting that inside this facility behind us,” Njuguna said.

Less than two weeks before Ghazawi’s death, 39-year-old Buddy Stevens died after attempting suicide at the jail. Thomas Bradshaw died by suicide while in jail custody in August. And last December, 48-year-old Stephanie Dunbar hanged herself inside the facility.

Speaking at Tuesday’s press conference, David Finke, a licensed psychologist and CEO of Jewish Family and Career Services, said many of the people who enter LMDC have mental health and substance abuse issues.  

“This tells you that quick and regular access to mental health services and substance abuse services are necessary to stem the deaths that we’ve had, and yet Wellpath has not been able to maintain that,” he said. “This is why we are asking the city to review its contract with Wellpath.”

According to Louisville Metro’s budget for fiscal year 2023, the city spends roughly $9.1 million on health care for people who are incarcerated. Most of that goes to Wellpath, which is the United States’ largest for-profit jail health care provider. 

Local activists have noted that Wellpath has been sued for dozens of in-custody deaths. A recent data analysis by the news agency Reuters found that jails and prisons with private health care contracts have a higher rate of deaths than those with publicly-run services.

Representatives for Wellpath did not respond to WFPL News’ questions about whether they believe the physical and mental health services offered at LMDC are adequate. 

Maj. Darrell Goodlett, a spokesperson for LMDC, said in an emailed statement that the Wellpath contract, like all city vendors’ agreements, is reviewed regularly. He added that Collins planned to continue meeting with the ACLU and other stakeholders to address their concerns.

“Special attention is being given to the areas of mental health services and substance use disorder,” Goodlett said. “For the first time in several years, both a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist both see patients at LMDC.”

Black Lives Matter Louisville activist Harriett Rankin told reporters at the press conference she witnessed jail staff refusing to provide medication to people when she was incarcerated at LMDC in the early 2000s. Rankin also said that she and other inmates received job assignments to monitor people on suicide watch.

“They need more staff, they need more mental health people down there, they need more medical people down there and they need supplies for folks who are coming in sick [from drugs],” Rankin said. 

Advocates said Louisville officials should direct funding to local organizations that can offer mental health and substance abuse treatment to people outside of a jail setting. They also said they are strongly opposed to spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to build a new jail, rather than instituting reforms that would lower the number of people incarcerated at LMDC.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

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

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