LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The overcrowding of Louisville’s jail has led to plumbing problems, extra overtime for workers and an influx of drugs smuggled inside.

And there’s been one other consequence: violence.

In the first six months of 2017, inmates at Metro Corrections assaulted each other more than twice as much as they did during the same time period just two years ago.

In addition, inmate assaults on staff also have surged, and the amount the city has paid out for jail employee worker compensation claims is already nearly double what it was for all of last year.

Inmate fights and assaults on staff are “a fact of life” in the jail right now, said Tracy Dotson, president of the Louisville Corrections Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77.

He attributed the uptick in violence, in large part, to the record-breaking overcrowding in Metro Corrections this year combined with lower staffing levels.

“It is ridiculously overcrowded,” he said. “When you take human beings and you stack them in like cord wood, tempers flare, patience is less, and that is compounded by similar situations on our side due to the short staffing and overwork.”

Through June, Metro Corrections reported 340 inmate-on- inmate assaults. That is a 26 percent increase over the same time last year (269 assaults) and already more than all of 2015 (288).

“When there is a rise in the inmate population, then there is a rise in conflict,” said Steve Durham, a spokesman for Metro Corrections.  “We have too many inmates in a space not designed for it.”

Currently, Metro Corrections has about 2,300 inmates, with a capacity of 1,793 beds. 

Inmates are in closer contact with each other, many sleeping on mats on the floor, while drug use is up and mental illness is a constant issue.

These conditions have led to several high-profile incidents involving overdoses and injuries.

In February, for example, a half-dozen inmates, “obviously under the influence of narcotics,” fought with jail staff, punching, kicking and biting officers, sending a few to the hospital.

New jail needed

In 2015, when the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults were relatively low, the average daily jail population was less than 1,800.

Over the last two years, however, the number of inmates has “skyrocketed,” Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton told Metro Council members earlier this year.

The number of inmates began to rise in 2016, in part because of the city’s drug epidemic, and set a record this year when the jail population climbed to more than 2,700 at times.

“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.”

Inmate attacks on staff have risen correspondingly, from 43 incidents in 2015 to 93 last year and 70 just through the first half of this year, according to city statistics. Durham said those statistics are misleading because they include initial reports of injuries, and he insisted the actual number of such assaults is much lower.

Even so, he acknowledged that the number of incidents is still higher than in past years.

“We see everything from a pushing and shoving match to weapons being used, whether it be a mop handle or whatever they can get their hands on,” Dotson said.

And the city has paid out about $440,000 in worker compensation claims through June, on pace to more than double the highest other year in recent memory.

“That’s a big number,” Dotson said. “That’s a lot of money to the taxpayers and to Metro Government.”

Dotson said the overcrowding issue is compounded by low staffing levels and more officers working longer hours.

The problem has been discussed at length by jail, court and city officials. But the solutions have all proven to be just temporary fixes.

Metro Corrections has moved dozens of inmates to an unused, illegal jail built in the 1950s above Louisville Metro Police headquarters downtown. But that jail has reached capacity at times this year, prompting officials prepare to move inmates into temporary housing in gyms at both the jail and Hall of Justice downtown, bringing in portable showers, toilets and beds.

The inmate population continues to grow and most officials don’t expect that to change any time in the near future.

So what’s the long-term solution?

The city needs to build a new jail, Durham said.

“We’ve outgrown the facilities here,” he said. “The facilities here are old and they are not getting any younger.

Durham said jail officials have talked with Metro Council members and Mayor Greg Fischer about that plan: to build a downtown detention facility for 2,500 or 3,300 inmates would cost about $100,000 per bed.

“This is equivalent to the cost of the Omni hotel,” Durham said. “It’s a big-ticket item.”

Overall, city officials have estimated a new jail would cost $135 million to $350 million.

“That would be a significant expense and, quite frankly, we just do not have the money for it right now,” said Chris Poynter, a Fischer spokesman. “We have many, many needs.”

While “it’s no secret we have an overcrowded jail,” Poynter said, officials are going to have to make due with the current facilities.

If and when a new jail is built, “we have to cope with our overcrowding as it exists,” Jefferson District Judge Sean Delahanty said.  

Delahanty is part of a new initiative the courts started this month, in which he handles the arraignments of all newly arrested inmates.

The city funded positions for a new prosecutor and public defender to work exclusively in this arraignment court, with the goal of keeping cases from dragging on while defendants wait in custody.

“The general philosophy is that we are over-incarcerating,” Delahanty said. “And the jail is in a real jam because they have to take in everyone that is arrested.”

Delahanty also said the state Department of Corrections is keeping too many convicted defendants in Metro Corrections for too long before removing them to house in a Kentucky prison.

In June, Bolton said the average number of state inmates awaiting transfer in Metro Corrections this year is 364 – and is the primary reason for the increase in population.

Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for DOC, said the department has moved more than 900 inmates out of Metro Corrections since April.

“However, our prisons are at capacity, and there is a shortage of jail beds across the state,” she said.

The state is working to create more space by double-bunking single cells and adding beds in available open spaces.

In addition, Lamb said, the state is currently in negotiations to reopen private prisons. Kentucky shut down private prisons four years ago amid allegations of mismanagement and of sex abuse of inmates.

“If we move forward with private prisons, we will continue taking every step possible to ensure that any future contract meets the highest standards of transparency and accountability,” she said.

In the meantime, local officials are working on finding short-term fixes and hoping for the best.

“It’s just dangerous," Delahanty said. “If you cram too many people into too tight a space, it’s a recipe for disaster. Someone is going to get hurt bad. It’s unsafe for everybody.“

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