The common area of the 1950s-era jail that local officials reactivated this year because of overcrowding. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
The common area of the 1950s-era jail that Louisville officials reactivated this year because of overcrowding. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

First of an occasional series.

Jails and prisons across Kentucky are bursting at the seams, creating a bottleneck for Louisville correctional facilities.

For at least five years, state inspectors have said that Louisville Metro Department of Corrections facilities have failed to provide enough beds for inmates. “We’re struggling right now,” says Mark Bolton, the director, who has been addressing the noncompliance.

The department is also handling more inmates with mental illnesses and multiple physical health problems. Medical and pharmaceutical costs at the jail have increased 18 percent from 2011 to 2015, and now consume about 15 percent of the total jail budget.

About 40 percent of state prison beds are in county jails, which hold lower-level offenders. In prior years, Bolton said, Louisville metro officials were able to move sentenced offenders to other jails around the state quickly.

Now, however, transfers are being held up because the state’s collective incarceration rate exceeds capacity. Bolton said that capacity recently reached 114 percent statewide.

That keeps some inmates in the Louisville facilities who normally would have been transferred.

Louisville’s main jail area, which formerly held Metropolitan Sewer District offices, has an approved capacity of 983, which it exceeded last year by 69, according to the official inspection report.

Two other local jail facilities, the Community Correction Center and the Hall of Justice, exceeded their capacities, 440 and 351, about half the time in the last five years. The facilities were at least 89 percent full each year, and reached a capacity high of 106 percent.

The overcrowding in April prompted Bolton to move inmates into a shuttered 1950s-era jail that lacks proper fire protection. Bolton said it was the better of two bad choices in which he had to weigh staff and inmate safety.

Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton
Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton

“I’m here to tell you, if you take a group of Boy Scouts and you put them in an area that is confined and restricted, you’re putting two or three people in a space built for one, you’re going to have problems with them,” Bolton said at the time. “So I have to consider that in terms of putting too many people in a finite space. What’s the lesser of two evils? We have space over there. It’s not the best space in the world, but it’s better than cramming people into a very confined area”

Inmate count fluctuations have allowed jail officials to close the old portion of the jail — only to have to reopen it a couple of weeks later. The situation a few weeks ago had deteriorated to the point that jail staff prepared the jail gyms for inmate habitation

An emergency protocol from a local judge has helped to ease the situation somewhat. Chief Regional Circuit Judge Charles L. Cunningham Jr. in late July ordered that if the jail gets so overcrowded that the 1950s-era jail has to house inmates, jail leaders can identify certain nonviolent offenders who have displayed good behavior who can, with judicial review, be transferred to the home incarceration program known as HIP. HIP monitors people via electronic devices, and has capacity, the judge said.

Cunningham wrote that he issued the order because the jail overcrowding “creates a risk for persons employed there as well as for persons housed there.”

While the severity of the overcrowding has diminished for the moment, Bolton said that he has told Mayor Greg Fischer and other local officials that he expects that current dynamics will continue to force the department into a cycle in which it activates and deactivates the old jail.

Fischer said that until this year, the city had the jail population under control, thanks in part to some new local initiatives that identified and helped repeat offenders get out of a cycle of leaving the jail only to return weeks or even days later.

Meanwhile, the state legislature has tried to curb inmate counts through legislation in 2011, which showed some initial improvements, such as lowering the state inmate population from near 23,000 to about 21,000, according to The Lexington Herald-Leader.

Heroin, mental illness

Rodney Ballard
Rodney Ballard

Even so, Rodney Ballard, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said state and local efforts are being negated by mental illness and substance abuse problems, including worsening long-term trends and the unforeseeable spike in heroin use.

The commissioner said that for years, jail and prison officials pursued an unsuccessful strategy: to release addicts from custody, expecting them to seek treatment on their own, so that they would lose their motivation for committing more crimes.

When criminal justice officials realized that approach was not working, they increased their capacity to deal with addicted inmates and prisoners: In 2005, the Kentucky Department of Corrections had 450 substance abuse treatment beds. Today it has nearly 6,000.

Ballard said the figure fills him with some pride, because it indicates progress — but it also fills him with sadness, because it shows that the growing demand for treatment beds is still being outstripped by the growing supply of addicts.

Bolton said that Louisville jail facilities are detoxing about 100 inmates per day. Last year, the LMDC detoxed 8,000 inmates, including 5,000 who were struggling with opiate addiction. This year, Bolton expects those figures to rise more than 30 percent.

Overcrowding also makes it difficult to house inmates in their proper groups:  women separated from men, those with mental health problems away from the general population, low-level offenders apart from maximum security suspects.

The crowded conditions are increasing the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults and the number of people who are failing to take their prescribed medications, jail officials said. They also place additional burdens on jailers, who have to check on more people, settle more disputes, escort more inmates to court and to meet family. More inmates means more paperwork, more meals and more medical emergencies.

Inmate health care

Courtesy of Flickr.
Courtesy of Flickr.

At his budget presentation in June, Bolton told metro leaders that the department projects to spend about $7.6 million on medical and pharmaceutical costs this year. While that’s down about 3.6 percent from 2015 — thanks primarily to changes in federal drug pricing rules —  it’s still up 14 percent over 2011.

Bolton said LMDC has added cameras, stepped up training, observation and information sharing to better identify inmates with potentially serious medical problems.

The department projects that it will make more than 700 trips to emergency rooms this year, about twice as many as last year.

The stepped-up monitoring and additional trips to emergency rooms have reduced the number of inmates who have died from severe medical problems, overdoses and suicides — but the additional trips also are requiring more overtime pay. The department spends about $230,000 a year, or about 15 percent of total overtime, on providing security to escort inmates to the hospital.

Bolton said that while inmates generally cost the department about $70 per day, inmates with significant medical problems can cost about three times as much. The department receives $31.34 from the state for each state inmate it houses.

Ballard said that to some extent, Kentuckians with addictions and mental health problems are falling through the communities’ tattered safety nets — only to land in jails.

Some people in jails are not dangerous criminals, but are merely dealing with issues that put them on the fringe of society, he said. They may be standing in the middle of an intersection, catatonic or gesticulating and placing themselves and others in danger. Police often have little choice but to take them to jail to protect them — and the public.

“There’s no place else to take them,” Ballard said.

And many people arrive at jails with multiple problems, including undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, rotting teeth, bad backs and high blood pressure.

And that takes jails and their staff out of their comfort levels.

“We’re not doctors. We’re not nurses. We’re not trained to even deal with them,” Ballard said.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.