Courtesy of Metro Department of Corrections

Gnats in cells and a lack of working toilets were just a few of the issues state compliance inspectors discovered in Louisville jails, highlighting a link between overcrowded living conditions and troubled sanitation standards ailing the city’s inmate housing units, according to state records.

Kentucky Department of Corrections compliance inspections obtained by Insider Louisville through an open records request show that, from 2015 to 2017, state inspectors found multiple instances of Louisville Metro Department of Corrections jails violating state compliance standards. The most common issues reported were a lack of adequate hot and cold running water, dormitories suffering plumbing issues and chronic overcrowding in three of its correctional facilities.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections conducts twice-annual inspections to ensure jails across the state are in compliance with Kentucky Administrative Regulations’ jailing standards.

The records detail over a dozen items of noncompliance, including:

  • Repeated overcrowding issues in all three of the jails operated by the LMDC, specifically units housing low-level offenders and work-release inmates.
  • Multiple instances of a lack of running water, deficient plumbing or other hygiene-related failings in multiple housing units across all facilities.
  • An inspection of a “shower area” in the Hall of Justice jail on June 9, 2015, which found that humid conditions created “issues with mold.”
  • A gnat infestation in cells in the main jail facility, according to a May 23, 2017 inspection.
  • Inmates using newspaper to block lighting fixtures or vents in order to regulate light and temperature in their cells.

Inspectors also found fault with the LMDC’s adherence to observation standards of at-risk inmates in its main jail. A June 2015 random review of suicide observation logs by inspectors found that “surveillance on several prisoners were not being conducted within the 20-minute limit.” The limit mandates that at-risk inmates must be checked on at least every 20 minutes.

In virtually all cases of reported noncompliance, the state Department of Corrections accepted the LMDC’s submitted corrective plans of action. And in almost all of those cases, subsequent inspections show the facilities to be in compliance compared to the previous year, but there were two categorical exceptions: Overcrowding and sanitation issues, which have plagued Louisville’s city jails for years.

A fourth jail, which houses “overflow” if the system-wide inmate population reaches above 2,050, is located on the third floor of the Louisville Metro Police Department headquarters but was not included in the records.

LMDC Director Mark Bolton declined to speak about the specific noncompliance issues and referred Insider to Steve Durham, LMDC’s assistant director.

Durham acknowledged the problems and outlined the department’s efforts to correct them.

In a phone interview, Durham went into great detail describing new policies enacted in the city’s jails regarding treatment of suicidal and mentally ill patients. He said that work-release-approved inmates can now serve as a “second set of eyes” to help correctional officers keep a designated 20-minute watch of any inmate deemed as suicidal by on-site medical staff. Several cameras also have been installed in mental housing units with access given to medical staff, he added, and some correctional officers now use a tablet PC to provide real-time updates on mentally ill inmates.

“We’re not a long-term mental health hospital,” Durham said. “We know it’s not the best place, but we want to give them the best care that we can.”

Durham said that about 25 percent of all LMDC inmates are currently prescribed some form of psychotropic drug, and he estimated that upwards of 20 percent of other inmates suffer from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

Regarding chronic overcrowding, Durham said that the LMDC routinely gets a waiver twice a year from the state allowing the jails to stay overcapacity without breaking compliance.

The statute, concerning jail standards under Kentucky Administrative Regulations, details specific dimensions of inmate living space, accommodations and other living condition standards which must be met by jailers across the state.

The exemption for LMDC relates to the “physical plant” aspect of the facility, whereby “if a jail, renovation, or expansion was built before the effective date of the physical plant standards … the department shall exempt the jail from a specific requirement if the department finds that the exemption does not significantly affect the security, supervision of prisoners, programs, or the safe, healthful, or efficient operation of the jail.”

Bolton and Durham both noted that where overcrowding persists, sanitation and maintenance issues follow.

A June 23, 2017 written response by Bolton to the state Department of Corrections outlined the corrective action his department would take to combat the gnat infestation.

“As with other facets of overpopulation, pests too have become an issue with which LMDC staff have made adjustments in both sanitation and pest control,” he wrote. “Currently, revisions to sanitation protocols, including pest control, are being made to address all sanitation/pests concerns.”

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Bolton echoed those and similar comments he made to the Louisville Metro Council last week by drawing a comparison between the chronic maintenance and overcrowding issues. He lamented a “If you build it, they will come” mindset that pervades conventional correctional wisdom.

“The facilities here are antiquated, they’re aging, and they’re in need of significant maintenance,” Bolton said.

To reduce the strain on the aging buildings, Bolton has expressed support for bail reform and criminal justice reform. He is skeptical that building a new jail would be the right solution. Building a new jail that would meet modern regulatory standards in a metropolitan area of Louisville’s size would, he said, be cost-prohibitive.

“You’re looking at anywhere from $200 million to $300 million,” he said. “But do we want to continue to throw money [at it]? I need a new jail, but we need criminal justice reform; otherwise, we are just going to continue to fill it up.”

Bolton said that prisons statewide are housing inmates at 133 percent of their capacity on average. That’s a 16 percent jump since 2016 when he told Insider that the statewide capacity was at 114 percent. Currently, he says all three jails — plus the aforementioned overflow jail — are on track to house an average of nearly 2,400 inmates this year. That is about 600 over the system’s 1,793-bed capacity in the three city jails.

Despite the issues found in the reports, the American Correctional Association re-accredited the LMDC in January 2018. According to a Wave3 News report, the LMDC “met ACA’s standards that all aspects of jail operations including management, health care delivery and safety of staff and inmates. Metro Corrections received 100% on both mandatory and non-mandatory standards.”

Durham said he was unsure if the most recent non-compliance findings by the state Department of Corrections were criteria in either the ACA’s mandatory or non-mandatory standard categories.

According to the ACA’s March 15, 2017 publication “Manual of Accreditation Policy and Procedure,” overcrowding and sanitation issues are weighted in both categories.

Further, the ACA’s rules state that a jailer may request a waiver from the accreditation organization to address physical space constraints regarding overcrowding — not dissimilar to the one that the LMDC gets twice a year from the state.