Metro Department of Corrections

In a recent presentation to Metro Council, Department of Corrections Director Mark Bolton outlined the state of the city’s jail system, painting with data a portrait of a department that is overworked.

Metro Corrections officers are working twice as much overtime as they were just two years ago, according to the budget information Bolton presented.

Compared to last year, the Mayor’s recommended budget will bump the department’s appropriations by 10 percent, to $53,467,400.

Bolton said rising needs of inmate health care, longer time spent in jail by prisoners, and losing officers to the Louisville Metro Police Department — which is dealing with its own attrition crisis — has forced the remaining officers to work overtime.

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections

With a current overtime budget of $2.2 million, Bolton said the department is slated to spend $1.8 million above that, or $4 million.

About $2.9 million of that total is used to post officers at an overflow jail on the third-floor of the Louisville Metro Police Department, Bolton said, which has been open every day in 2017 with the exception of a few weeks in May and June.

“We’re just seeing more and more chronic and acute illnesses among an at-risk population we are having to provide medical care for,” Bolton told the council, adding that on any given shift, the department fields five to eight officers on hospital guard details at University of Louisville hospital.

The number of hospital stays for inmates increased 43 percent over last year, according to the data. A large component of those costs can include detox admissions, which Bolton said accounted for nearly 10,000 inmates in 2016 and 2017, or about 32 and 29 percent, respectively, of overall admissions. The majority, he said, were for opioid abuse.

It costs a little over $70 a day to house an inmate in a LMDC jail, in addition to any medical costs or special detail. By comparison, a “mental health bed” costs over $216 a day.

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections

“We are working staff to the bone,” Bolton said. “This not just a local problem, or a regional problem. This is a challenge nationwide. There are so many prisons in the state of Kentucky that are running prisons at a 40 percent [staff] vacancy.”

In 2017, Bolton says the LMDC lost 24 corrections officers largely to the LMPD. As of May 4, the department staffs 550 officers.

Correctional officer shortages are increasingly a concern for city and county leaders across the United States. Media reports across the country detail similar issues regarding understaffing and overtime stress, and a 2016 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that, among state prisons, staffing shortages were occurring amid a projected rise in prison populations.

To reduce the strain on officers and inmates, Bolton emphasized the importance of criminal justice reform and diversion programs such as the Living Room as necessary to keep the number of inmates in the overcrowded city system down, and even wondered aloud if most of the low-level offenders, many of them held on less than $500 bail, should even be in the jails in the first place.

Chronic overcrowding has also forced the department to use the overflow jail, padding out the total number of available beds from 1,793 to 1,919, according to the numbers.

But that figure is still less than the everyday needs of the inmate population. According to Bolton’s presentation to the council, the LMDC is on track to house 2,000 prisoners on average each day — just over its maximum bed count — by the end of 2018.

Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, noted that even with admissions into the jail lower than in past years, the daily population and length of stay in the jail remained high.

“So what’s the problem?” he asked. “Are there longer sentences? Is it taking longer to get people through the court system? Why are people there longer?”

Bolton said that although some transfers from state prisons were a small part of the problem, he told the councilman that case-processing time is taking longer.

“But the other thing is people are coming to jail for more serious stuff,” Bolton said. “And they’re staying longer.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed an 8.3 percent reduction in the LMDC’s FY18 budget to a reduction in appropriations compared to the previous year. In fact, the “reduction” reflected a reshuffling of correctional medical services funds to another Metro department, and spending trends since 2010 were impacted by a “centralization of business functions,” according to the city. The headline and other references to that reduction have been changed as well.