Metro Louisville
Roberto Roldan | wfpl.org

Metro Corrections officer Michelle Sogan speaks about jail conditions at Tuesday’s community meeting.

The union representing employees of the downtown Louisville jail held a community meeting Tuesday afternoon to address what members see as a growing crisis within the Metro Corrections Department.

On the weekend of Sept. 11, there were an average of 15 corrections officers on duty for the roughly 1,600 people incarcerated in the jail. The president of the Metro Corrections union, Daniel Johnson, said a safe staffing level would be more like 55 to 60 officers.

Union representatives estimate there are currently more than 120 vacancies in the department. They blame a low starting salary, $17 per hour, for making it hard to fill those positions.

Johnson told WFPL News the situation at the jail is “a dumpster fire.”

“It’s more dangerous than it’s ever been right now,” he said. “If you have a loved one there, whether they work there or they are being housed there temporarily, it’s just come to a point where something needs to be done.”

Johnson said dozens of corrections officers were recently quarantined because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were awaiting test results. In addition to being short-staffed, there are equipment problems at the jail, like faulty elevators, intercoms and cameras, Johnson said.

He and other union officials put together Tuesday’s meeting, inviting government officials, legal experts and community leaders to brainstorm potential solutions. Attendees heard allegations from the union that people incarcerated at the Louisville jail are waiting weeks for clean clothing, aren’t getting haircuts and aren’t being allowed exercise time.

Michelle Sogan, a corrections officer at the jail, said the conditions at the jail require staff to “violate inmates’ rights on a daily basis.” One example, she said, is that incarcerated people are rarely allowed out of their cells.

“The inmate cannot come out at their daily hour for a phone call, because we don’t have the staff,” Sogan said. “Phones are down for entire days because of electrical issues. [We can’t] contact officers with an intercom button to notify for medical emergencies.”

Sogan also described a recent day when she and two other officers needed backup. Not all of them were provided radios, and the ones that were found the radios were either broken or out of batteries.

“Every one of us that works this job understands that there’s risks involved. However, what are we supposed to do when one of those risks becomes the department?” Sogan said.

Many of the community members who attended the meeting were bothered by what they heard.

Kimberly Moore is a formerly incarcerated person and now the executive director of the Joshua Community Connectors, a community organization working with young adults in west Louisville to connect them with mental health, employment and housing resources. After the meeting, Moore said she plans to tour the jail herself and help put pressure on people in power to address the issues there.

“I think moving forward from here is going to take a lot of action,” she said. “It’s going to start at the top with Mayor [Greg] Fischer and [Metro Corrections Director] Dwayne Clark.”

The Metro Corrections union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77, has been vocal about the recent issues at the Louisville jail since that mid-September weekend. Last week, Metro Corrections started giving double pay for overtime as a result of the staffing shortages that weekend.

In a statement, Fischer spokesperson Jessica Wethington said these policies were created in partnership with the union.

“It’s important to give the recently rolled out short- and long-term efforts an opportunity to work and measure their impact on staffing and recruitment,” Wethington said. “As the Mayor has said, we want Corrections employees to ‘sign on, stay on, and bring on’ quality candidates to better our Corrections team.”

Top department officials were also called before the Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee last week. They attributed much of the problem to national worker shortages and jail overcrowding. Matt Golden, Louisville’s chief of public services, said the city is also considering releasing people held on small bonds to address overcrowding.

On Tuesday, Corrections Maj. Mike Ashby was suspended after sending an email to employees last week that seemed to pin the responsibility for fixing problems at the jail onto officers, according to union officials and news reports. Ashby now faces a pre-termination hearing, although it is unclear if it is because of that email.

“I don’t know how much more they can step up,” said Johnson, the union president. “They’re working 70 to 80 hours per week. They’re doing things that violate their contract just so they know they’re not leaving a partner by themselves if they don’t have to.”

Johnson said the union plans to hold a vote of no confidence against Clark, the director of the Corrections Department, on September 28.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.