Sick inmates, makeshift beds and long waits: A look inside Louisville’s packed jails

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham walks through the jail intake area as suspects await processing. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham walks through the jail intake area. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Part 2 of a series; read part 1.

About 60 people lounged in big blue plastic chairs in the Louisville jail’s intake area on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Law enforcement agencies had been busy. The day shift alone had arrested 62 people, an unusually big haul.

Last year, the jail booked an average of 89 people a day — and most of those after the day shift, when idle hands combine with alcohol to boost people’s inclination to break the law.

The intake is a daily challenge. Louisville Metro Department of Corrections already held 2,051 inmates that Tuesday — 258 above its stated capacity. In many jail areas, inmates and guards have to step around blankets and blue foam mattresses that supplement the metal bunk beds.

The heroin epidemic, crowded jails across the state and longer jail stays are filling the local facilities — and many others in Kentucky — beyond their capacities. Officials said the local jails are functionally obsolete — inadequate for modern-day inmate supervision and reducing recidivism — and too old for needed upgrades.

Temporary beds and mattresses the jail has been using because the number of inmates has exceeded its stated capacity. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

The jail has been using temporary beds and mattresses because the number of inmates has exceeded its stated capacity. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

This year, on average, the daily population at the four local jails has reached 1,952, a three-year high. The average length of stay, 21 days, is the highest in at least eight years. And that’s despite greater local efforts to put addicts into treatment programs and to get offenders into classes that help them change their behavior.

LMDC Director Mark E. Bolton told Insider Louisville recently that the situation is “out of control.”

In April, Bolton reopened parts of a 1950s-era jail, which had been abandoned for reasons including maintenance challenges and a lack of a proper fire suppression system. Before a judge’s emergency order alleviated some of the overcrowding, jail officials had prepared jail gyms for potential inmate housing.

Booking can take four hours

In the intake area on that recent Tuesday, some of the soon-to-be inmates sat in chairs and glanced at overhead TV sets. Others stared at the ceiling or engaged in conversation with neighbors — but only those of the same gender. A four-foot yellowish brick wall, paint chipped at the top, separated male and female suspects.

A corrections officer walked through the rows of chairs and handed out sandwiches to the suspects waiting to be booked. It’s one way to reduce the potential for conflict, said Steve Durham, the LMDC’s assistant director. Previously, inmates who were booked during or after chow time often had to skip meals and wait until breakfast to get any food. The booking process can take four hours. Providing the inmates with a small bite to eat is an easy way to take away a potential reason for resentment and anger.

Once it’s their turn, the offenders shuffle to one of four desk stations along a wall where they reveal data about their criminal and medical histories. The information helps authorities determine whether the suspects need to remain in jail and, if so, on how much bond. Judges pay attention to the overcrowding and use “appropriate criteria” to set bond, Durham said. Many of the offenders are released on a promise to return. Even fairly low bond amounts, $500, keep a lot of people in jail, he said.

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton

The demographic information collected in the intake area also helps jail officials determine the inmate’s “classification,” a type of risk assessment that makes sure inmates are separated by criteria including sex, age and severity of offense. The idea is to protect first-time offenders from hardened criminals — and to prevent them from “learning” from more experienced cellmates. Classification can also contribute to overcrowding. A maximum security area may have some beds available, while the minimum security area is overcrowded.

About eight months ago, the jail added a dedicated station in the intake area to sign up suspects for Medicaid, the government program that provides medical insurance for the poor. Durham said that the department always asks when offenders last saw a doctor. The typical answer: The last time they were in jail.

Previously, the department would address the inmates’ medical problems and stabilize them, but as soon as they left the facility, without access to a doctor or health insurance, their health would deteriorate. Now, all the inmates who qualify are signed up for Medicaid.

“If you have good health, that’s a pretty good step to a better life,” Durham said.

One would-be inmate sat nearby, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. The jail doesn’t have any control over its population, Durham said. The department has to take whatever offenders the police deliver and take care of their medical needs.

Layout, maintenance challenges

The jail’s main building, which has a capacity of 983, dates to the 1960s. It housed offices for the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District until the 1990s, when the offices were converted to a jail.

The first floor layout makes sense, Durham said, but many of the cell areas allow only for indirect supervision, which means guards cannot see what is happening until they enter the cells.

“We’re breaking up fights. We’re not preventing fights,” Durham said.

Guards enter the jail cell areas at least twice per hour, he said. It’s a small-scale version of community policing, or spending time in the community to understand the inmates’ needs, to reduce friction and ward off conflicts before they fester and explode into violence. Guards also encourage inmates to keep their areas clean, to take responsibility for their spaces.

Sgt. Stanley Combs, who patrolled one of the jail hallways, said more personal interaction allows guards to built a rapport with inmates. Officers can assure inmates who may be suffering from anxiety and intimidation, and they can build trust to gain more information that can help prevent problems.

More modern jails enable guards to keep a closer eye on inmates to intervene before problems arise. That approach, called direct supervision, requires a jail building to remove physical barriers that impede staff and inmate interaction, offer clear sightlines into all areas of the housing units and incorporate design elements, fixtures and furnishings to promote positive inmate behavior, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

Durham likened the jail to a large apartment complex: Most people want to get along, want to borrow from one another, want to be left in peace and leave others to pursue their own interests. But with any large group of people, conflicts occur eventually, and direct supervision and personal interaction will allow guards to better prevent those conflicts or at least catch them in their early stages.

Guard-inmate interaction

On that recent Tuesday, one of the roughly 60 inmates in the common area of the 1950s-era jail banged his hands on a door and yelled: “Get me out of here. Right now.” When he did not get the attention from the guards that he thought he deserved, he raised his voice, repeated his demand and started kicking the door.

Durham strode to the other side of the jail area, which also held inmates, though they seemed to be in a better mood.

The old jail features floor-to-ceiling iron bars, fixed bunks and sliding doors.

Durham said it lacks sprinklers — though the fire department approved the jail’s use — and ceiling cameras, which means many officers wear body cams instead.

One of the inmates, Lorenzo Edmunds, 37, of Atlanta, told Durham that he should have been released already.

“You got a hold in Georgia,” Durham told him through the bars.

Edmunds said that the hold should have been lifted already, because it was the one for which he was picked up and brought to Louisville, for nonpayment of child support.

Durham told Edmunds that he had checked. “It’s not lifted yet,” he said, but he told Edmunds that he would check again.

That seemed to satisfy the inmate. Edmunds told IL that he was in a different part of the jail a week ago, but that he actually likes the older part better.

You don’t feel like you’re in a sardine can, he said.

Steve Durham, assistant director of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections communicates with one of the inmates. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Steve Durham, assistant director of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections communicates with one of the inmates. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

As Durham ducked around a corner, he spotted liquid on the floor. The inmate who had complained earlier had flooded part of the common area. Guards moved him out of the area, though they weren’t buying his story — that he was afraid for his life — because, they said, he was high-fiving other inmates when he was moved to other accommodations.

Down another hallway, Durham entered part of the old jail that sat unused. The floor next to a toilet was discolored, which, Durham said, reflected some maintenance problems that needed to be addressed before this portion of the jail could be opened to inmates.

“We’ll be in this space pretty soon,” he said.

A few minutes later, Durham descended a stairway when a nearby inmate told him that he needed medical attention because he had been bit by a spider. The assistant director had his doubts about the story, saying the only insects he had ever seen in the jail were dead cockroaches. Nonetheless, he told the inmate that his issue would be addressed.

Down another corridor and around another corner, Durham entered the maximum security wing, built in 1976, which features small pods, a brick wall at one end, a common area in the center, cells on the sides and a window at the front with a small slit for inmate interactions with the guards.

Durham bent forward to lower his head so that he could communicate with an inmate who complained about the order in which people were being moved out of this part of the jail. Some inmates who had recently arrived and wanted to be moved were left in the pods, while others who had been there for a long time — and didn’t want to move — were being moved out.

“There’s people willing to go,” the inmate told Durham.

“I can appreciate that,” Durham said, and told him he’d look into it.

Another inmate told Durham that one of the showers lacked curtains. Again, Durham said he would notify someone to take care of it.

The interaction between guards and inmates is critical to the job, Durham said.

“If you don’t get in and get to know people, you don’t care,” he said.