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SUNDAY EDITION | Attorneys' investigation concludes hundreds, likely thousands, of inmates improperly detained at Louisville jail

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville Metro Corrections has for years improperly detained hundreds, likely thousands, of inmates after they were ordered released by judges, and the problem has been all but ignored by top jail officials.

These are the central allegations in a two-year-old federal wrongful incarceration lawsuit against the jail and city filed on behalf of seven inmates – a suit that also argues the problems in Metro Corrections were far worse than anyone initially thought and continue to persist.

Jail officials and the city, however, say the problem has been blown out of proportion – the current head of Metro Corrections estimated in court testimony that around 10 people are detained too long each year – and shift much of the blame to court employees. The city handed over the names of about 50 inmates when asked to produce a list of defendants held in jail too long since 2016.

“There’s a big disconnect going on” between the two sides, said attorney Jim Ballinger, who represents the former inmates and says an examination of jail records show at least hundreds of inmates are improperly detained each year. “It’s a big, big problem. It’s not rocket science to make this a priority down there, to get people out on time.”

In court documents, the city argues the plaintiffs have not proven the problem is widespread and whether the inmates that are improperly detained are caused by the jail or courthouse, where judicial orders can be illegible or missing key information.

Metro Corrections spokesman Steve Durham said the jail could not discuss pending litigation and declined to comment for this story.

But Ballinger said his side can prove its claims, citing evidence filed recently in the case that includes internal and city audits, thousands of pages of interviews with correction employees, jail release records, communication between court officials and the jail, and depositions of top Metro Correction officials.

Among the recently filed evidence:

  • Employees in the jail’s records department acknowledge there have been major issues with staffing, training and outdated procedures yet say in depositions that their concerns, passed on to officials over several years, effected little change.   
  • An audit by the city and another by an outside agency found numerous problems and offered several possible fixes, but employees in the records division said they haven’t seen those recommendations. In fact, jail officials were put on alert about the problem as early as 2012 in an operational audit, yet most of the issues remain.
  •  A separate investigation by the plaintiffs, in which they combed through thousands of inmate files over a four-month period, suggests hundreds, likely thousands, of defendants have been improperly held a day or longer in the last three years.
  • An internal email from a supervisor in the records division said she was told some jail employees were intentionally “shredding or discarding” release orders from the court. But while the supervisor warned that this action could have “severe consequences,” no further investigation was done.
  • No one at the jail is keeping track of how many inmates are released too late or early, and officials often only realize someone is being improperly held when they hear about it from a family, attorney or judge, according to depositions.

“It’s unbelievable they don’t track this or know how many people” have been improperly detained, Ballinger said in an interview, adding that an outside auditor may have to be hired to determine the scope of the problem.

U.S. District Court Judge David Hale, in declining to dismiss the case last year, said the allegations present a “troubling practice” in which the jail has “systematically failed to comply with state orders pertaining to individuals’ release dates.”

A new judge is considering whether to allow the case to proceed with class-action status, which would mean there could be potentially hundreds of additional plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are requesting the judge issue an injunction ordering that the problems be fixed while the suit is ongoing. The end goal, Ballinger said, is to compensate those who have been affected and to fix the issues.

One inmate, for example, spent five months in custody in 2016 and 2017 after his sentence was completed because of employee errors.

A plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jacob Healey, claims he was ordered to serve three days in jail but was still in custody four days later and only released "after he began making inquiries himself as to why," the suit claims. 

Ballinger, who is working with attorneys Gregory Belzley and Camille Bathurst, said he has heard from people who lost jobs, were assaulted by other inmates or suffered illness because they were not released on time.

Similar suits have ended up being expensive for other cities. In 2001, for example, Los Angeles paid $27 million to settle class-actions lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of inmates held in jail after courts ordered them released. As part of a $6 million settlement in Washington D.C. in 2013, the city agreed to pay $475,000 to improve inmate processing at the jail.

Metro Councilman David James, who pushed for the city audit of the jail that was released earlier this year, said he is upset he is still hearing about issues with inmates being left in jail too long and realizes this could lead to an expensive settlement or jury verdict for the city.

“It’s upsetting that we haven’t corrected the issue,” he said. “And I don’t blame the litigants for filing a lawsuit because the amount of time that people have been detained when they … should’ve been released is unacceptable. At some point, we will have to pay for that.”

"It's gotten worse"

Besides the issues of what happened in the past, there is also disagreement about what steps are being taken to rectify the problem now.

“Nothing’s changed; it’s gotten worse,” said Ballinger. “It’s much worse than what we thought the problem was. I was frankly astounded when we dug in and started looking at the records.”

Ballinger and other attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case claim jail officials have been “deliberately indifferent and have never taken any real steps to put an end” to the issue, according to court records.

They claim inmates in Metro Corrections are still being improperly detained – “some for days, some for weeks.”

And they allege that recently retired Director Mark Bolton and the man who has been announced as his replacement, long-time second-in-command Dwayne Clark, have known since at least 2012 that problems in the jail’s records department were causing unlawful detainment but have done little about it. Ballinger described Bolton and Clark as having a “laissez faire” attitude about the issue.

Clark, who oversaw the records unit, had no policy that late releases be reported or explained to him, for example, attorneys said in court records.

And Clark testified that while thousands of inmates are booked into jail each year, he believed maybe 10 or fewer were people being held too long.

“One is too many, don’t get me wrong, but ten people?” Clark said in his deposition. “It isn’t this big issue as you’re portraying to me. It’s not.”

Clark said his estimate came from research compiled after the lawsuit was filed. The new jail director also said that many recommendations from audits have not been implemented, in large part because the jail needs not only more funding but the cooperation of the courts and others involved in the process.

“He didn’t really understand the allegations,” Ballinger said of Clark’s deposition “So no, I don’t feel real good about the situation changing.”

Bolton, attorneys said in court records, “attempted to deny” the jail’s responsibility for the problem in his deposition, saying he “wanted to place the blame on anyone and everyone else in the justice system” and didn’t seem to understand that Metro Corrections' job "is to release people on time."

While attorneys claim Bolton and Clark significantly underplayed how many inmates are detained too long, their own investigation of jail records show that a review of just four months of release records suggests thousands of inmates might have been kept up to a day after they were supposed to be released while hundreds waited days or weeks over the last three years.

And the attorneys found staffing at times in the record department dropped from as many as seven employees to one or even zero.

In his deposition, Bolton said it was a complex “systemic issue” and there was “room for improvement” from all involved in the process. But he indicated court orders with missing or incorrect information were the biggest problems, and major fixes in the system would need to come from the courts.  

“His attitude was to blame everyone else,” Ballinger said of Bolton in an interview with WDRB. “He almost seemed offended by the allegation they were holding people longer than they should.”

Court orders shredded?

In a recent interview, Bolton, who retired last month, took issue with the characterization of his testimony.

He said that while he couldn’t talk about specifics of the lawsuit, the courts were the main source of the problems being created. 

“The number of mistakes out of the courts and off the bench, by one or two judges in particular, is alarming,” he told WDRB. And “there have been a multitude of corrective actions on their part and ours.”

Ballinger said the city audit showed only about 7 percent of the release problems came from problematic court orders,

In its responses to the lawsuit, the city has argued that the jail has “gone to great lengths to improve the system,” including the emailing of court orders which allows them to be placed in an electronic file. This replaces the previous outdated system where court orders were faxed or hand-delivered.

Bolton also said in his deposition that the records area had recently been remodeled to create a better working environment and additional hires have been expedited while additional training is now offered.   

“If there’s a better way of doing it, we’re all in, man,” Bolton said in his deposition. “We’re all in because nobody wants to see people released from jail too late.”

But the coordinator of the records department for Metro Corrections testified in depositions for the lawsuit that she had not been shown the recommendations from the city audit or the jail’s internal audit and doesn’t believe those suggested improvements have been implemented.

Arnetta Al-Amin testified she was told by Bolton to make improvements and cut down on mistaken releases but given no specifics on how to do that.

She also said that understaffing is a matter of common knowledge and that she repeatedly told Clark about the problem as well as the need to update procedures without success.

Also included as part of Al-Amin’s testimony was an October 2017 email she sent to all records department employees, her supervisors and Clark saying she had been informed certain staffers were “shredding or discarding” paperwork from the court.

“I hope that is not true,” she said in the email, which she sent out again in March 2018. “However, if it is please know that your actions will result (sic) severe consequences!”

In her deposition, Al-Amin said she didn’t know the name of any staffers accused of shredding or discarding paperwork from the jail. And attorneys for the inmates said in court documents that “amazingly (Al-Amin) … did not even make an effort” to find out who the employees were.

The city-commissioned audit found the system can be easily manipulated by employees "with ill-intent" against an inmate as "paper documents could easily go missing, be deleted from email inboxes or even taken.”

Another internal email Al-Amin sent in May 2018 said she and other workers had found discharge orders “laying (sic) around unprocessed” and told employees to “never” do this.

One of the recently added plaintiffs is a former inmate who was ordered to be released at 10 a.m., but jail employees did not come for her until about 1:30 a.m. the next morning.

Also in the court records is a 2017 letter from the FOP for jail employees to a Jefferson County judge in which the union says it made “numerous attempts” to work with Metro Corrections officials to correct errors in releasing inmates but that the relationship with the administration had been “adversarial” and communications stalled.

The cause of the problems, according to a 2017 letter from an FOP representative to a judge, is inadequate staffing and training as well as outdated procedures and equipment.

“You’d think once this lawsuit was filed they’d be on red alert down there to get this problem fixed, but we haven’t seen that,” Ballinger said. “Their job is to incarcerate and release people, and if there is a problem with these court orders for years, they should have done something about it."

Copyright 2019 by WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.