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Louisville Metro jail facilities ‘woefully inadequate,’ according to investigator

Exterior of Louisville Department of Metro Corrections.
Roberto Roldan
Exterior of Louisville Department of Metro Corrections.

An audit of the Louisville Metro jail blames the 13 recent deaths in the facility on faulty design. It also calls for the city to build a new jail. Anti-incarceration advocates are frustrated the audit didn’t address issues beyond the conditions and operations of the jail.

The Louisville jail doesn’t have enough staff to monitor the hundreds of cameras it takes to keep an eye on incarcerated people, let alone directly supervise them, according to an overview of a forthcoming audit.

Former FBI agent and attorney David Beyer presented an overview of the audit to members of the council's Government Oversight, Audit and Appointments Committee last Wednesday. He was hired to look into the operations and conditions at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections after Metro Council approved the move last year.

"I think, at a minimum, you need to gut the current facility,” Beyer said. “It's not healthy for the inmates, and, similarly, it's not healthy for our employees."

Beyer found “woefully inadequate facilities,” shortcomings in leadership and inadequate staffing at the jail. He told council members that staff failed to adhere to basic security protocol. They also did not adequately coordinate medical care for incarcerated people, he said.

The push for a new jail comes amid an ongoing crisis: 13 people died in Metro Corrections custody from November 2021 to January this year from suicide, overdoses and medical complications. Multiple investigations into the fatalities are underway.

Officials who’ve supported the proposal to build a new jail have said part of the problem is the 54-year-old building at the corner of East Liberty and South 6th Streets. They said its crumbling infrastructure and outdated design are at least partially responsible for the current conditions, which pose a risk to workers and the people incarcerated there.

Beyer said a better jail design would allow corrections officers to be stationed inside the housing unit. That would encourage direct interaction between staff and incarcerated people, limit negative behaviors and allow for more efficient management. Under that model, he said a single officer could efficiently manage as many as 64 cells.

"There were many instances where what transpired could have been observed by corrections officers in a direct supervision model," he said.

However, Beyer did not provide an estimate of how much a new jail could cost the city.

Kevin Trager, press secretary for Mayor Craig Greenberg, said while the office awaits the release of the full report, they plan to take action to address various issues in the jail.

“We will be making significant announcements in these areas as we work to improve conditions for individuals incarcerated in the facility,” Trager said.

Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist at the ACLU of Kentucky said he expected the audit to focus more on solutions to address root causes.

“He should have looked at ‘How can we lower the number of people coming in as part of the process?’ and he didn’t address that at all. They’ll talk about the design of a building, and not about uplifting our community and investing in our people,” he said.

Njuguna agreed the facility is “abhorrent,” but he said it frustrates him that the city isn’t focusing on addressing poverty, homelessness and substance use disorders.

“It still continues on the path of mass incarceration,” he said.

Carla Wallace of Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice said spending millions of dollars on a new facility would not help improve outcomes for those moving in and out of the system.

“The idea that putting better paint on it, and making it look nicer, for anyone who’s been locked up? That is a horror no matter what the place is, especially when you haven’t been found guilty,” she said.

If conditions don’t improve, Beyer told metro officials the city could possibly face a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation and more lawsuits.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that 13 people died in custody of the Louisville downtown jail from November 2021 to January 2023.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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