Workers at the jail in downtown Louisville are speaking out about what they see as a growing crisis. They say the jail is overcrowded, understaffed and its infrastructure — like computers, elevators and cell door locks — is in disrepair.

The Metro Corrections union has described the current conditions as “a dumpster fire,” and a majority of its members recently declared they have no confidence in jail leadership.

Advocates who have been pushing for years to limit or eliminate the use of cash bail see themselves as uniquely positioned to help address the jail’s capacity issues. And they say their proposal seems to be gaining traction in light of the crisis.

“Something has to be done”

Every month, members of the local activist group Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) knock on doors in mostly white, working-class communities to organize support for issues that disproportionately affect their Black neighbors. 

They’ve focused in recent years on criminal justice reform and more specifically the issue of cash bail. 

Bill Allison and his wife Pat spent a recent Saturday morning speaking with residents living along Shingo Avenue in Louisville’s South End. Bill, a local attorney who has worked with the ACLU of Kentucky, usually starts by explaining what cash bail is. 

“If somebody gets arrested, the judges say, ‘You have to post money to get out of jail,’ even before their trial,” he explains to a woman and her elderly mother, both immigrants from Albania. 

“A lot of people — poor people, working-class people — cannot post this bond.”

Oftentimes, though, Bill doesn’t have to explain anything. He said many of the people he meets know what being arrested is like, or they have a family member who’s been to jail. 

Those people are eager to sign postcards in support of ending cash bail. The SURJ organizers then send those notes to local judges, who have wide discretion when setting bail. 

“When you can talk to people at home, most times they’ll sign the postcard,” Bill said.

In fact, SURJ has a 78% success rate when it comes to gathering signatures. Democrats and Republicans alike sign it. Since May, the group’s members have knocked on 3,000 doors and had more than 700 conversations about cash bail.

SURJ and other local advocacy groups doubled down on their efforts in recent months, as news coming out of the downtown jail became more and more dire.

The Metro Corrections union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77, has reported chronic overcrowding and understaffing. 

Daniel Johnson, the union president, said that’s had major impacts on workers and their personal lives. Some have felt their only option was to quit. Johnson said the issues are also affecting the Louisville residents who are currently incarcerated there.

“They’ve been packed in these dorms that are designed for 20 people and they’ll have as many as 50 in there,” Johnson said. “It adds to the tensions of already being incarcerated away from your loved ones.”

The union has participated in a series of meetings and town halls this fall about the crisis. They’ve invited anyone who might have ideas, even activists who said they want to see prisons abolished.

“It’s come to the point where something has to be done,” Johnson said at a meeting in September. “We’re reaching out to the community for some pointers, some support and just sort of brainstorming together.”

Although it may come as a surprise to some, Johnson said the union supports examining how cash bail is used in Kentucky — and whether there could be a way to keep some people out of jail.

Disagreements about bail’s role

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Government worked with judges, prosecutors and public defenders to reduce the jail population by hundreds. They released people awaiting trial who were considered low-risk, and some judges stopped issuing warrants for unpaid fines or missed court dates. The Metro Corrections union supported that effort.

Between February and June of 2020, the number of people incarcerated at the jail dropped from 1,851 to 1,252, according to data presented to Louisville Metro’s Jail Policy Committee. But a more recent snapshot of the jail’s October population obtained by WFPL News shows the jail’s population has crept back up. 

In late October the facility housed 1,553 people — about 200 people more than it should. Nearly 75% of them were awaiting trial. And 15% of the people in pre-trial detention were there on amounts less than $5,000.

While some judges argue that limiting bail or doing away with it completely is an issue for Frankfort, activists disagree because Kentucky gives judges discretion over bail as long as their actions are considered reasonable.

Carrie Cole, operations manager with The Bail Project in Louisville, said judges vary in how they utilize bail. 

“They could decide to release someone on their own recognizance and trust they’ll show up to court, or they’ll set $5,000 bail on a traffic arrest,” Cole said.

The Bail Project helps bail people out of jail while they await trial and would ultimately like to see the practice abolished. It also works with groups like SURJ to meet with and put pressure on local judges.

Judges frequently argue that without bail, people will skip out on their court date and any consequences, Cole said.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Angela McCormick Bisig said as much at a recent public safety forum where she was asked about bail reform.

“Time and time again, they walk out of the jail and they never come back,” Bisig said. “So those low bonds aren’t us trying to jail people that don’t need to be, but at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, wait, we’ve got to hang on to you until we get your case resolved.’”

District Court Judge Annette Karem, who also attended the forum, added that those calling for reform don’t see the whole picture. She said judges have access to Kentucky Pretrial Services, whose staff vets each person charged with a crime. 

Their background, ties to the community and previous arrests in and outside of Kentucky factor into a judge’s decision to set bail, Karem said. 

“You cannot tell what has happened just based on the charges,” she said. “We have more information in our hands to make that decision, and we can only make the best decision that we can.”

But Cole said more than 90% of The Bail Project’s clients return to court even though they don’t have bail hanging over their heads. 

The Bail Project also connects clients to services like drug counseling, job placement and rides to court dates. Cole said this community support model has been successful across the country. It’s one of the things activists highlight when speaking with judges in Louisville.

“It goes from trying to take money from people to putting money back into the community, and making sure that when folks are released they do have the support within the community to be successful,” Cole said. 

Bail reform gaining traction?

Activists said judges are more willing to meet with them following news about the crisis at the jail.

Carla Wallace, a co-founder of Showing Up For Racial Justice, said the group has been invited to meetings and events that they weren’t previously allowed in. 

“In the meetings, we are talking about why cash bail is a problem and what we are learning from our court watch program, where we have people sit in on arraignment court,” she said. 

Wallace said they also now point judges to Illinois, which earlier this year started the process of eliminating cash bail by 2023

Whether judges and other local officials are truly listening remains to be seen. Wallace said she fears people with power in Louisville may use the current crisis to push for replacing the jail with a new, larger one.

“Which is outrageous,” she said. “That just means we go from a tight cage to a bigger cage, and more caging of people.”

Advocates for bail reform or abolition said they ultimately want to see state-level change. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has repeatedly refused to take action on the issue, despite garnering support from some high-profile officials.

Johnson, who heads the local corrections union and lobbies the General Assembly on corrections-related issues, said he’s seen attitudes toward bail and other criminal justice reforms evolve over time.

“Whereas before you would see a lot of tough on crime, ‘I want everybody to go to jail and I want them there locked away forever,’ you’re seeing a lot of mindset being changed away from that now,” he said. 

Johnson said he doesn’t know whether eliminating cash bail or some other kind of reform is the answer to the jail’s current problems. But he said local leaders, himself included, are getting more desperate to do things differently.

WFPL’s Breya Jones contributed to this story.

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