SUNDAY EDITION | Drugs are 'a giant problem' inside Louisville jail
“We put people in custody to keep them from being able to be under the influence,” said a judge in charge of the county's drug court. “The level of contraband coming into our jail is unacceptable.”
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – At a meeting of the Louisville Rotary club earlier this year, Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton walked those in attendance through the steps the jail takes to keep out drugs, weapons and other contraband.
After a “thorough” pat down by officers, inmates pass through a $250,000 full-body scanner designed to detect drugs and weapons hidden inside or on someone’s body.
“Last year we found a female inmate that had 14 fully loaded syringes filled with heroin in a body cavity,” Bolton said at the Jan. 26 luncheon. “Those are things that could have made their way into the jail environment had we not had this type of technology.”
But those things are still finding their way into the jail -- 98 needles made it past security and inside Metro Corrections just weeks after this speech -- and city and judicial officials say security measures are falling far short.
Illegal drugs have been a constant problem inside Metro Corrections in the last few years. Dozens of inmates have overdosed, officers have been rushed to hospitals after being exposed to drugs or fights with impaired inmates, and defendants have appeared in court high.
Interviews with judges, attorneys, city officials and Bolton and his staff show a few common concerns:
- Jail employees, contractors and others working inside Metro Corrections are generally not searched for drugs when they enter the facility.
- Officers do not have to be certified, and receive only basic training, to use the body scanner. The scanner is not set at a high enough frequency to detect all contraband, according to the head of the Metro Corrections union.
- Metro Corrections doesn’t track or make available statistics on overdoses or how often drugs are found in the jail, raising questions of transparency.
WDRB News asked Metro Corrections for the number of overdoses inside the jail over the last five years and a breakdown of how often drugs are found. Jail officials responded that they do not track that data.
However, data available showed more than three dozen inmates were given Narcan medication to reverse the effects of an overdose in the last 15 months.
“I know that Director Bolton will tell you that every correction facility has problems with contraband and they do, but we have a giant problem with contraband,” said Metro Councilman David James, chairman of the council’s public safety committee. “It’s a big issue.”
Jefferson District Court Judge Stephanie Burke, who has been the drug court judge since 2012, said in the last year alone, around 10 participants have come to court from jail high, acknowledging they obtained drugs while inside Metro Corrections.
“We put people in custody to keep them from being able to be under the influence,” she said in an interview. “We use that as a last resort … so that became a serious issue right away that our clients were getting drugs inside the jail.”
Burke said defendants have “talked freely about using (drugs) in the jail” and have told court officials about the ease in which they have obtained drugs. “The level of contraband coming into our jail is unacceptable.”
In February, six inmates were found to be “under the influence of narcotics” inside a jail dorm, with three sent to the hospital and two given Narcan. Some inmates became combative with officers. Three officers also ended up going to the hospital due to possible exposure to the drugs.
A few weeks later, four people inside the jail overdosed.
In March, three inmates at the jail overdosed on the synthetic drug spice and were taken to the hospital. And, also in March, Metro Corrections began investigating how 98 needles made it past jail security.
Bolton declined an interview request for this story through his spokesman, Steve Durham, citing an ongoing Louisville Metro Police Department investigation as to how inmates are getting drugs.
“Their investigation is fluid, it’s moving,” Durham said. ”We’re just not going to get out in front of that. I expect things to be happening and I don’t want to do anything that impedes the work to be done by law enforcement.”
However, Durham said the jail has “already begun internal security changes including restrictions” to the jail of “non-correctional personnel.”
“Metro Corrections is considering increased random integrity checks, where, under direction of a supervisor, officials participate in a search of other officers while on duty,” Durham said.
In the past, Bolton acknowledged there are areas for improvement but maintained drug issues are common in all jails but have been made worse in Louisville as the inmate population rises.
In 2015, the average daily jail population was less than 1,800. But in the last two years, the number of inmates has “skyrocketed,” Bolton told metro council members last week, to more than 2,400.
"We have 40 people in housing units that are built for 20," Bolton told reporters in March. "And we shouldn't have to operate like that, but we are. And we're doing it in a safe and secure manner."
Meanwhile, Bolton has the backing of Mayor Greg Fischer, who told WDRB last week that he “absolutely” has confidence in the director.
“Running a jail is a very difficult job especially with the numbers of inmates that the state (is leaving in Metro Corrections) and they do a good job under very difficult circumstances there.”
Staff not searched
As part of the LMPD investigation, Deserea Fuget, a food contractor at the jail, was allegedly caught bringing drugs into Metro Corrections when she was stopped at a security checkpoint earlier this month.
Inside a Tootsie Roll container she was carrying were numerous drugs packaged for sale, including heroin, marijuana, spice and pills, according to a police report.
Bolton has said in the past that he suspected some contractors – and possibly even some officers – were part of the drug problem inside Metro Corrections.
But on a tour of the jail in March, Durham told reporters that “one of the things we don't search on a daily basis is staff. We don't search volunteers. We don't search the education folks that come in here. We don't do that on a daily basis."
Durham said it would be too time consuming to conduct those searches.
"That's a lot of people,” he said. “And we're going to look and see if we need to make changes to how we do that. But that's a lot of people to go through on a daily basis. … The modern approach is that you should trust those individuals you give authority to come in here and wear our uniforms and wear our badge. That's the modern approach."
James said in an interview last week that it’s not acceptable to have inmates overdosing on drugs smuggled inside the jail.
“I’d rather it take too long than have the situation we have now,” he said.
On Thursday at a Metro Council Budget Committee, James asked Bolton if the jail checks employees and contractors when they come in the building.
“We do random searches,” Bolton told the council. “We are looking at enhancement, adding some technology … trained canines, ramping up pat down searches on correction staff, contract staff and volunteers.”
Tracy Dotson, president of the Louisville Corrections Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77, said he doesn’t believe officers would object to more checks.
“If it involves getting rid of the problem, or addressing the problem, I would not have an issue with that,” Dotson said in an interview. “I don’t imagine anybody would, to prevent what’s been going on, such as the (overdoses), the violence.”
Dotson said officers also believe the body scanners – one at Metro Corrections and one at the city’s minimum security facility – are not being properly utilized. Dotson said most officers have not been properly trained on how to use the scanner.
“It’s basically just a verbal tutorial from an officer who has used it,” he said. “There absolutely should be some kind of verifiable training for that piece of equipment.”
He also claims the scanner has not been set at a high enough frequency to detect drugs, because of “modesty concerns” by leadership at the jail.
“That scanner can look deep into your soul if you want it to,” he said. “It’s my opinion we should be using the most in-depth scan at all times.”
In March, Bolton told council members there is no “certification curriculum” for training officers.
However, the body scanner vendor trained officers when it was installed and he said there were plans in the works to get officers additional training.
“We think we can do better with that,” Bolton told the council in March. He also noted the scanner has “been worth its weight in gold” given the amount of drugs and contraband that have been caught before making it into the jail.
LMPD officials did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation, but Durham hinted that more arrests were likely.
Judge Burke said she was “encouraged by the fact that LMPD is involved in the investigation. I am encouraged they are taking steps to identify the problems.”
James also said he hoped the LMPD investigation was moving the jail “in the right direction” but thinks part of it has to do with the management of corrections.
“What is leadership of Metro Corrections doing … to work on the large amount of narcotics that are inside our jail?” he asked in an interview.
Bolton has reassured the Metro Council that steps are being taken to stem the tide of drugs flowing in.
On Thursday the jail went under lock down and officers searched every inmate housing unit for drugs or other contraband, finding cell phones, weapons and some prescription pills.
“We know we have challenges with contraband in jail,” Bolton told the Metro Council last week. “We have a very active ongoing investigation.”
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