Metro Louisville

Officials running the downtown Louisville jail said the man who died last Friday in custody was 44-year-old Norman Sheckles. He was the ninth person to die while incarcerated since November. 

At a press conference Friday, Metro Corrections Director Jerry Collins said officers and medical staff responding to reports of a medical emergency found Sheckles unresponsive around 4:45 p.m. on July 8. After receiving emergency aid, he was transported to the University of Louisville hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

While an investigation into Sheckles’ death is ongoing, Collins said Corrections officials now believe it was due to an overdose. He said three other people incarcerated at the jail also had to be taken to the hospital in “medical distress.”

“There is a problem in the community, which always makes it a problem in the jail, especially with fentanyl which is poison,” Collins said. “A very small amount can cause an overdose.” 

Sheckles had been incarcerated at the jail awaiting trial since September of last year. Collins said he was facing a handful of charges, including domestic violence and possession of a handgun by a convicted felon. Court documents show he had a trial scheduled for October. Collins, however, said the charges were not relevant to circumstances surrounding Sheckles’ death.

“The charges mean nothing,” Collins said. “A loss of a human life is tragic every time. It’s our job to protect people while their charges are getting adjudicated.”

Earlier this week, Daniel Johnson, who heads the union representing Metro Corrections officers, told WFPL News that CCTV footage showed Sheckles became unresponsive while standing. According to Johnson, other people incarcerated in the jail moved Sheckles to an open bed and repeatedly splashed water on his face for about 20 minutes before calling for help.

“Their decision to try to conceal it, I believe, cost this person his life,” he said.

Johnson said on Monday that he hoped criminal charges would be filed against the people who delayed the response from medical staff. 

Collins confirmed the details shared by Johnson at the press conference and echoed his belief that officers could have saved Sheckles’ life if they had been notified sooner. Collins declined to clarify whether the criminal charges he expects as a result of the investigation would be against those who delayed help or the person or people who smuggled the drugs into the jail.

Deaths of people being held in custody at Louisville’s downtown jail has been an ongoing issue since last year, and has led to scrutiny from Metro Council and at least one federal investigation. Former Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark announced his retirement in March after seven in-custody deaths in fewer than five months. 

A crackdown on drugs entering the facility was announced in early April, shortly before Collins took over as head of the jail. In addition to upgraded body scanners and a drug-sniffing canine unit, officials announced new security measures, including more frequent searches of dorm areas and photocopying of all non-legal mail entering the jail. 

Collins told members of the press on Friday that the changes had allowed them to prevent some drugs from entering the facility.

“Since April 1, we’ve detected 45 incidents through our scanner of folks trying to smuggle [drugs] in,” he said. “Just this week, through fake legal mail, we uncovered suboxone strips being attempted to send in…The person it was sent to was charged, and our detectives identified the person on the streets that sent it. He was charged also.”

The jail has also been the site of a number of mass overdose incidents. Five women who were sent to the hospital last September were believed to have overdosed. All five survived.

A coalition of local criminal justice reform groups, led by the ACLU of Kentucky, have criticized Louisville Metro’s handling of the in custody deaths and have called on city leaders and prosecutors to limit the number of people being held at the jail for low-level, nonviolent crimes. 

Leaders of the union representing Metro Corrections officers have also pointed to chronic understaffing, overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure as contributing to the dangerous environment inside the jail. 

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