Community Health

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, and city officials said Thursday they are not sure what’s causing it. 

The number of inmates who have tested positive tripled in the last week from 44 to 124. Medical Director Dr. Kevin Smith said the jail is running out of room to isolate inmates with positive cases and quarantine those who may have been in contact. 

All of the 15 largest coronavirus clusters in the United States are in jails and prisons. Kentucky has seen major outbreaks at Green River Correctional Complex, the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women and the Kentucky State Reformatory.

Smith laid out the department’s plans to stem the surge through testing and quarantine, but said it’s been difficult to identify where the increase is coming from. 

“Here in the last two to three weeks, what we’ve seen here seems to mimic what is happening in the community,” he said, alluding to Louisville’s increasing number of coronavirus cases. “We can’t really identify where the surge is coming from.”

Jail officials have focused testing efforts on the newly incarcerated, to catch cases early that are coming from the wider community. They also tested the entire staff, to see if that was driving the outbreak, but Smith said that was inconclusive. They also regularly rotate testing through the prison’s 50+ dormitories as surveillance.

They have put all of the inmates who have tested positive together, and are quarantining anyone they may have come in contact with, with twice-daily temperature and symptom checks. 

Smith said 20 dorms are out of commission currently after positive cases were identified. 

“Space is an issue,” he said. “We only have a finite amount of space.”

Push To Release More Inmates Amid Surging Cases

The current population at LMDC is just under 1200 inmates, compared to early March, when there were closer to 1800. The jail has often housed more than 2000 inmates at a time in recent years. 

But LMDC Director Steve Durham said Thursday that even with reduced population numbers, the jail is still too crowded to do proper social distancing. He said they are working with judges, county and commonwealth attorneys, and the public defender’s office to find ways to release more inmates. 

“That’s the number one goal, is a safe return of individuals to the community,” Durham said. “99% of the people in custody are going to return to the community eventually, so if we can look now and modify bond conditions to include things like home incarceration….we want to do a safe transition of individuals in custody into the community and continue their accountability to any charges they may be facing.” 

Black Lives Matter Louisville rallied at the jail Wednesday with family members of people incarcerated at LMDC and facilities across the state. They called for more inmates to be released, particularly as cases continue to surge statewide. 

Gov. Andy Beshear has said state officials are nearing the end of a screening process that could result in up to 700 state inmates being released early. Louisville Metro officials have not shared how many inmates they would like to see released, or by when. 

“People who have the power to shape jail policy need to again be looking at folks who are incarcerated because they’re in poverty, people who are incarcerated pre-trial, and people who could be released safely,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a prison reform research organization.

Bertram said county jails in particular see high rates of inmate turnover, and when a facility is undergoing an outbreak, maintaining business as usual is highly risky.

“That contributes to the movement of the virus in and out,” Bertram said. “When there’s a spike in cases in the jail, everybody in the community is put at risk.” 

That’s a particular concern right now in Louisville, where hundreds of people have been arrested in just the last two months while protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Protesters say they have been crammed into cells, unable to social distance or wash their hands. 

The ACLU of Kentucky has filed a lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police Department for excessive force against peaceful protesters. Deputy director Amber Duke said arresting protesters amid a pandemic may be exacerbating the problem. 

“Bringing dozens of people from the community into a facility where we know there’s a coronavirus outbreak puts those folks in danger,” she said. “But it also is bringing members from the community, where coronavirus is also circulating, into the facility.”

State Prisons Also Affected

LMDC is just the latest detention center in Kentucky to see an outbreak. Coronavirus has swept through three Kentucky state prisons, infecting 844 inmates and 136 staff. Ten inmates have died from what is suspected to be coronavirus, though some are still awaiting autopsies. 

“Jails are hotspots for the virus,” Bertram said. “It’s impossible to social distance there, and compared to even other facilities that tend to be crowded like nursing homes, jails and prisons tend to have very poor sanitation.”

Though Beshear released several hundred inmates early on in the pandemic, advocates would like to see more, particularly at the facilities hardest hit by the virus. Inmates at Green River Correctional Complex and the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women have filed lawsuits, asking to be released to home incarceration due to the outbreaks. 

The ACLU of Kentucky is representing six medically vulnerable inmates at KCIW, who are asking to be released to home incarceration. Deputy Director Amber Duke said they are watching the outbreak at LMDC closely. 

“When the pandemic started, there were so many things that we didn’t know, and at this point, months into this, we do know how serious and devastating and deadly,” coronavirus is in detention centers, Duke said. “Most of the folks that we are talking about were not sentenced to death sentences when they went to jail.”

She called on state and local officials to take swift action to protect people in their custody.  

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections.

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.