Investigations

Shelton McElroy handed a credit card to a court clerk with the intent to nearly max it out to the $30,000 limit. 

He’d come to the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk’s Bowman Field Branch shortly before midnight on a recent Friday with a list bearing three names of men he sought to bail out of Louisville’s jail. 

None have been convicted; none could afford the cost of the bonds imposed upon them by a judge while they await trial.

McElroy works for the Louisville Community Bail Fund, which uses donations to bail out people awaiting trial after ensuring they have the support networks necessary to be successful after their release. The group also helps recently-released inmates find jobs, get necessary identification cards, find computer access, and even just get clean clothes.

“Those are the barriers to their success day in and day out,” he said. “And these men and women don’t ask for much.”

Despite the contagious virus taking root inside Louisville’s jail, judges continue to set bail amounts that are out of reach for some people. Government agencies lean on a set of narrow parameters when deciding who gets set free. The pandemic is also leading to delayed court hearings for some people, resulting in extended stays behind bars where they risk infection.

The result: Hundreds of people stuck in a cramped jail as a dangerous, contagious virus spreads, infects and, in some cases, kills. Many inmates and their families are turning to bail funds for a shot at getting out of confinement. 

It’s surreal, empowering and necessary work, McElroy says, and especially right now, when the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on jails and prisons across the country. More than 196 inmates in Louisville’s jail have tested positive for the virus: equivalent to about 16% of the jail’s average inmate population. 

“If the jail was on fire, would you make a decision to leave people in the fire,” he asked. “The jail actually is on fire with the pandemic that is virulent to the degree that it is deadly. The jail is on fire.”

But groups like McElroy’s have limited resources. 

As of last week, more than 1,000 inmates at the Louisville jail were being held on a pre-trial bond, according to information provided by Steve Durham, assistant director at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. 

Black inmates account for about 23% of Louisville’s overall population, but they make up half of the jail’s population. 

People of color are also being disproportionately infected with, and dying from, COVID-19.

Like other initiatives across the country aimed at footing bail out bills, the Louisville Community Bail Fund has seen a surge in donations in recent months due to widespread protesting and the arrests that come with it. Since June, the group has spent $1.9 million bailing out nearly 100 people. Nearly all of that money is returned to the group when people show up for court and their case is resolved.

At the counter of the Clerk’s office, McElroy hands over the organization’s credit card. But a few minutes later he gets word the men he came to bail out won’t be getting released. Two will be extradited to other jurisdictions. One is due to serve out a state sentence.

He’s disappointed, but not discouraged.

“This is part and parcel of the work,” he said. “I think this is a small challenge compared to someone who is in there trying to manufacture PPE out of a shirt to live and to survive.”

‘It’s insane’

Those still in jail say it’s a terrifying experience. They described the cramped conditions in phone calls with inmates recorded by McElroy’s group and shared with KyCIR.

“It’s terrible,” said Daniel Mullins, a 31-year old man being held on a $10,000 bond for tampering with a monitoring device. “There’s 40 of us in here in a 20-man dorm. We’re mat to mat, face to face on the floor. It’s insane.”

Others, like Rayshawn Tucker, say they feel trapped, forgotten, and scared. Tucker, a 19-year-old, faces a complicity to murder charge and is being held on a $250,000 bond.

“We’re just lost souls in here,” he said. “They’re just leaving us in here to die. It’s getting bad, it really is.”

Several inmates told KyCIR they don’t have enough cleaning supplies. Tucker said he’s seen inmates get punished for asking for more.

Durham denied that inmates lack cleaning supplies. He said jail officials provide cleaning supplies and pass out more upon request. Symptomatic inmates are isolated and tested, and more than 3,000 tests have been conducted, Durham said.

One of the top methods to stop the spread of COVID-19 recommended by health officials is to maintain several feet of distance from other people. For people in jails and prisons, which are designed to warehouse people in cramped quarters, that’s virtually impossible, said Aaron Tucek, a legal fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

Tucek pointed to the early hotspots for infection — cruise ships and nursing homes — as evidence of the danger posed by tight, closed spaces. 

“Jails and prisons are just incredibly dangerous places to be with the spread of this pandemic,” he said.

Reducing inmate populations in jails and prisons can free up space for incarcerated people to maintain the distance needed to help avoid infection and can prevent future spread in the community at-large as people cycle in and out of the system, he said.

A two-page document posted on the jail’s website outlines the precautions the facility is taking to reduce the spread of the virus: In addition to isolating people who test positive for COVID-19, jail officials say they test inmates and staff, provide face masks for everyone held in the jail and conduct daily facility cleaning.

Jail Numbers Fluctuate

Bail is only available to people who have yet to be sentenced. The thousands of others held in county jails and prisons across the state need a judge’s approval, to be paroled, or get a commutation from the governor. 

Since March, Gov. Andy Beshear has ordered the early release of nearly 1,800 state inmates. Louisville jail inmates serving their state sentences at Metro Corrections account for 58 of those.

But it’s unclear just how many inmates in total have been released during the pandemic because many deals are struck by prosecutors and defense attorneys, who aren’t tracking releases statewide. 

In Louisville, the jail’s average daily population is down to about 1,200 inmates — about 800 fewer than in 2016, when overcrowding issues plagued city officials and inmates were housed in dangerous, outdated overflow facilities.

Jeff Cooke, a spokesman for the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney, said his office has agreed to the release of about 250 people from the Louisville jail due to the pandemic. A spokesman for the Jefferson County attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Statewide, the county jail population fell to just more than 5,580 in late April from more than 11,600 in early March, according to data from the state’s Department of Corrections. Since then, county jail population numbers have creeped back up to more than 7,500.

Damon Preston, Kentucky’s public advocate, said the initial drop in jail population was a good thing. He said the “unnecessary” rise comes “as some fail to learn from the successful experiment.”

“The likelihood of an infected person entering a jail now is even higher than it was earlier this year,” he said. “So now is not the time to return to a policy of locking up our neighbors who are presumed innocent.”

For McElroy, his work during the pandemic is about getting people out of an unsafe situation — not  proving that people can be let out of jail without harm to society, he said, because 96% of the people they’ve bailed out have shown up for their court dates. Ensuring someone faces their charges is one reason judges assign bond in the first place, and their high success rate shows their strategy is working, McElroy said.

But, the cycle of high bonds and raising bail money isn’t the permanent fix he wants.

“We don’t want to be bailing people out for the next five years,” he said. “We want to demonstrate to the system so that the system changes design.”

The headline has been updated.

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.