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Organizers push for holistic improvements to Louisville jail conditions

People stand behind a microphone outside the jail in downtown Louisville.
Danielle Kaye
Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville, speaks at a press conference about conditions at the downtown Louisville jail.

Following the arrest of a former Metro Corrections officer last week, advocates are shifting the spotlight to holistic reforms – like more health care services and fewer arrests – to improve conditions at the downtown Louisville jail.

At a press conference Wednesday, organizers spoke against proposals for a new jail building, demanding that the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections instead invest in improving conditions inside the existing facility.

From November 2021 to January of this year, 13 people died in Metro Corrections custody, some allegedly due to drug overdoses. This ongoing crisis prompted the arrest last week of former Metro Corrections officer Cynthia Kosman, who is accused of conspiring to bring drugs into the jail.

“This kind of behavior will not be tolerated, and we will make every effort to hold those accountable who betray the trust the community has placed in them,” LMDC director Jerry Collins said in a statement.

But Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville, said she doesn’t think the recent arrest of a Corrections officer is nearly enough to address the root causes of health and safety issues in the jail.

Helm said she wants to see a larger investigation into what role Corrections officials have in drugs getting into the facility. Even more crucial, she said, is investment in programs and health care services for people who are incarcerated there, as well as reducing arrests for non-violent charges so people don’t end up in jail at all.

“For this city, for this department, it’s a larger message that is going on here,” Helm said. “There is a long line of people who are responsible for this.”

The Louisville jail continues to be overcrowded, according to a report from the City University of New York’s Data Collaborative for Justice examining jail population trends. As of December 2022, 1,285 people were incarcerated at LMDC.

Calls for holistic reforms come amid a push among jail leaders and city officials to build a new jail. They blame failing infrastructure and outdated design for the current conditions at the facility. This new jail would cost the city nearly $300 million, according to a report from consulting firm CLG.

Former FBI agent and attorney David Beyer presented an audit of the operations and conditions at LMDC last month. The audit found “woefully inadequate facilities,” and Beyer called for the city to build a new jail.

Savvy Shabazz, president of All of Us or None Kentucky, condemned the plans, arguing that a new building will not help prevent deaths.

“It’s not the building that kills people – it’s the conditions,” Shabazz said. “A newer, larger facility will hold more people and kill more people in the same ways, through overcrowding, through lethal indifference, through a neglect of health care needs as well.”

Organizers with the group Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice said they have spoken with Mayor Craig Greenberg to emphasize that building a new jail should not be a city priority.

Antonio Brown said he has been incarcerated at the downtown jail multiple times, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he doesn’t think building a new jail is the right approach.

“They need to fix what’s going on inside this place. It literally can be fixable – you can clean this place up,” Brown said. “Once you get locked up, if you’re not a criminal, the conditions here can turn you into a criminal.”

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.