Community Metro Louisville

Louisville jail officials are moving to create a digital mail system and institute other security measures after eight people died while in custody in less than six months. 

The internal security changes come as Lt. Col. Jerry Collins takes over leadership of the Metro Department of Corrections. Former Director Dwyane Clark retired earlier this month amid calls for his firing. Many of the new security measures recently announced by jail officials, like more frequent searches of dorm areas, are aimed at preventing drugs from being smuggled into the facility. 

Some advocates, however, do not think the reforms will address how most drugs are getting in. And the jail is still dealing with understaffing and low morale.

“Each day, dozens of attempts are made to get drugs into custody via the mail, secreted in body cavities and through other sources which are under investigation,” jail officials said in a March statement. “Many of these attempts are foiled by hard working corrections officers and staff.”

Jail leaders have not released official causes of death for the eight people incarcerated at the facility, citing ongoing investigations. But Daniel Johnson, who heads the Metro Corrections union, told WFPL News that corrections officers suspect some of them have been drug overdoses.

“In some of the cases, officers tell me they’ve seen signs and symptoms consistent with an overdose,” he said.

In addition to the spate of deaths, the jail has 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. 

The jail recently replaced its body scanners with ones that utilize artificial intelligence. Officers can input information about what contraband they find, and the scanners can learn to identify it in the future. Everyone who comes into the facility has to pass through a scanner.

“The biggest way people bring drugs into the jail is the body cavity,” Johnson said. “It’s already finding stuff that our old scanner would not have found.”

Metro Corrections is planning to hire two drug-sniffing dogs and canine handlers to create a dedicated K-9 unit. Louisville Metro Council appropriated funding for that last December.

Corrections officers are also now photocopying all the mail coming into the jail and providing those copies to the people incarcerated there. Maj. Darrell Goodlett, a Metro Corrections spokesperson, said it’s an interim step until they can move to a digital mail system.

Johnson said jail officials are in talks with prison communications firm Securus Technologies to run the digital mail system. Securus currently manages digital mail systems in Southern Indiana jails and across the county. The company also administers the Louisville jail’s phone system.

Johnson said once the digital system is in place, people being held at the jail will use a screen inside the dorm units to access their mail. Books and magazines sent by anyone other than an approved retailer will be returned.

Will the new measures be effective?

Johnson said he hopes the new measure will help cut back on the volume of drugs available to people incarcerated at the downtown Louisville jail ⁠— particularly more dangerous substances like fentanyl and synthetic marijuana ⁠— but some outside observers are skeptical.

Savvy Shabazz is a criminal justice reform advocate and president of All of Us or None, an organization that works to prepare currently and formerly incarcerated people to re-enter the world outside of jail. Shabazz was formerly incarcerated, and spent five years in Kentucky’s prison system for non-violent drug offenses.

He said most of the drugs inside jails and prisons are smuggled in by officers or contractors, not through the mail.

“We’re not having a realistic conversation,” Shabazz said. “From my experience, someone on that staff is bringing those drugs in, and they’ve probably been doing so for a while in large quantities. That’s just the way the system works.”

Shabazz said contraband smuggled in by people who were recently arrested or through the mail system usually represents a small portion of the available drugs in a jail. He’s called for a federal investigation into the Louisville jail to understand the drug issue, and why so many people have died while in-custody.

“With the feds, they’re going to be fair,” he said. “They don’t care who works there, they’re going to treat everybody the same. No one has relatives. Nobody is connected. So, to me, that’s the only solution.”

While jail leadership requested the FBI investigate one of the in-custody deaths, it’s unclear if they are conducting a larger investigation. Mayor Greg Fischer and Louisville Metro Council both launched independent reviews of the jail earlier this year.

Johnson, the union president, said he’s only seen three sworn officers caught bringing contraband into the downtown jail in the 18 years he’s worked there. Regardless, he said Metro Corrections is exploring the idea of implementing random searches for sworn officers and civilian employees throughout their shifts.

“We don’t want dirty officers anymore than the public does,” Johnson said. “They give us a bad name and destroy good relationships we worked hard to build to show the public we do care.” 

A coalition of criminal justice reform groups, led by the ACLU of Kentucky, have called for other changes at the jail to address the overdoses and deaths. 

In December, they sent a letter to Fischer demanding police issue citations for low-level offenses, rather than making arrests. The coalition sent another letter to Jefferson County judges in February, asking them to stop requesting bail for people who don’t pose a risk to public safety. 

The ACLU of Kentucky has also expressed concerns about the changes to the mail system at the Louisville jail.

Legal Director Corey Shapiro said rather than attacking the jail’s problems directly through efforts like bail reform, photocopying  mail is just stacking another burden on those incarcerated there. 

“People who are incarcerated are unable to communicate freely with their loved ones in a way that treats them with dignity, such as receiving color photos from their family members,” he said. “It’s another attempt by the government to chip away at the way people are treated.”

Shapiro said it’s particularly “unconscionable” because most of the people at the Louisville jail are being held pre-trial on bail they can’t afford.

For now, the jail’s new mail procedures will not apply to letters sent by an attorney to their client, also known as legal mail. The jail will continue the long-standing policy of opening the mail in front of the recipient, without reading any of the contents.

The ACLU, which is currently suing Kentucky over its attempts to change the legal mail policies in state prisons, hopes it will stay that way, Shapiro said.

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