Editor’s Note: This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
Michael Taylor thought he might die alone in the Shelby County Detention Center.
Taylor had been sick with the coronavirus for weeks. It was early March, and he was living in a cell with 19 other people, some of whom had not yet tested positive for the virus. Taylor’s symptoms got worse and worse until medical staff quarantined him in the cell usually reserved for people in solitary confinement.
On March 3, the first night he spent in what he calls the hole, Taylor said he was having trouble breathing.
“I could die in here and nobody’s ever even come around and said anything,” Taylor said the next day, when jail staff let him out for an hour to make phone calls. “I feel like this little sentence that I got just turned into a life sentence.”
If Taylor were serving his four-year sentence for a felony conviction in a state prison, his case would be among those the state reports to the public each day.
But the Commonwealth of Kentucky pays local jails a $31.34 per diem for each person they house, and they say outbreaks in local jails are the jailers’ problem — even though almost 9,000 people housed there are technically in state custody.
The state Department of Corrections says there is no statewide tally of how many of the more than 19,672 people serving time in local jails throughout Kentucky contracted or died from COVID-19 because local jails don’t have to report them, and the state can’t control the measures taken.
But that’s only partially true. Although the state wields legal oversight to enforce its standards, state officials have been reluctant to use those tools during the pandemic. Instead, some jailers say the DOC has contributed to the overcrowded conditions by halting transfers from jails and into state prisons.
A KyCIR investigation has found the state knew about outbreaks in jails it never publicized, as jailers themselves describe cramped conditions sometimes driven by their obligations to the state.
There Could Be Jail Data
The majority of Kentucky’s incarcerated people are in jails locally run by elected or appointed jailers. Around 40% of them are considered state inmates.
The jails are independent bodies, but the Kentucky Department of Corrections exerts control through its funding: the state pays a per diem to local jails for housing those convicted of felony offenses,who would otherwise be in state prison. The DOC says jails are responsible for the wellbeing of people the state places in their care — but it did ask jails to notify them when a coronavirus outbreak occurred, “in an effort to provide assistance to county jails who were impacted by a COVID outbreak,” said DOC spokesperson and Deputy Commissioner of Community Services and Local Facilities Lisa Lamb.
Lamb said that data isn’t reliable, since all jails don’t report regularly, and the DOC won’t publish the numbers.
Lamb didn’t respond to a question about how many cases have been reported to the DOC thus far.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s prison systems have counted about 7,900 cases and 48 deaths — second in the country for COVID-19 cases and third for deaths per 10,000 prisoners, according to the Marshall Project.
Darrell Cox is the jailer in Shelby County, where Taylor caught the virus, and their outbreak shouldn’t be a secret. Cox says he reported about 30 positive cases directly to the state in January and February, and the facility’s positive test results are automatically sent to the local health department. But the outbreak has not been made public until now.
“We had to do daily reports,” Cox said. “If it was an inmate, if it was a deputy, we had to report that.”
The Kentucky Department of Public Health previously tracked the cases jails reported. By January, they had logged over 3,000 cases in 56 facilities, as well as over 500 cases among jail staff, according to an article by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
But Morgan Hall, communications director for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said the public health office discontinued this report in January — after that article ran — because “the quality and reliability of these reports had been limited by incomplete and/or inaccurate reported data.”
James Daley, Kentucky Jailers Association president and jailer of the Campbell County Detention Center, said statewide reporting of coronavirus numbers wouldn’t do any good. Jails are independently operated, Daley said, so what happens at one jail doesn’t impact what’s happening inside another.
“It’s really pretty limited on what we can and can’t do, because each county is its own animal,” Daley said. “Although we all get along, Campbell County doesn’t really have a dog in the race in Letcher County, for example.”
Daley dealt with an outbreak at his jail in January and February that he said infected over 200 people and killed two deputies. During an outbreak, his jail tracked positive cases and cell movement to help control the spread, he said, but otherwise the jail does not keep a tally of cases in his jail.
“I don’t really track my own numbers because they went up, and then they went back down within a month,” Daley explained. “As long as I’m keeping it out of my facility, I’m a happy camper, right?”
The Department of Corrections does have one major stick it can wield to make sure jails are keeping the people they house safe. Kentucky pays counties $31.34 a day for every person serving a state sentence but held in a local jail — plus an additional $2 a day, per person, as long as the pandemic continues.
If a jail doesn’t meet its standards, the DOC can remove people serving state sentences from the facility, revoking crucial income for the county. The DOC’s Division of Local Services is tasked with enforcement of those jail standards and conducted 80 inspections in 2020.
But the state removed people from only two facilities last year.
None of the inspections were in-person. Instead, inspectors randomly reviewed personnel files and jail policies for compliance.
The most commonly cited issues in 2020 were related to overcrowding at a time when social distancing and mask wearing were widely proclaimed as the best way to fight the spread.
The DOC removed 53 people from the Carter County Detention Center in June after state officials learned the jail wasn’t communicating with the local health department about an outbreak.
Carter County jailer R.W. Boggs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Lamb, of the DOC, says that removal was a one-time occurrence and the jail began accepting people on behalf of the state shortly after the issue was resolved.
The state also removed 24 people from Allen County in September, when there were 12 positive cases inside the facility, according to emails obtained by KyCIR through an open records request.
The jail was leaving people who tested negative in cells with people who had tested positive, according to emails between the state and jailer Larry Piper.
Piper responded that the negative people in the cells had already been exposed. This is a common admission from jailers in Kentucky, including Cox of the Shelby County jail, who say their facilities simply don’t have the space to separate everyone.
Dr. Edward Nardell, an infectious disease expert at Harvard University, said there is some truth to the idea that by the time an infection is discovered, the virus may have spread to other people inside the cell who have not yet tested positive.
“You have a congregate setting, that potential is going to be there. Period,” Nardell said. “Ideally, you would separate people out and prevent that, but even then, if you have 20, 30 people housed together, it’s even unclear how effective separating people would be because by the time you go to separate them transmission may have already occurred.”
Ronald Fry and Dwaine Caldwell were in an 18-person cell at the Calloway County Detention Center when a deputy first brought the virus into the jail. A cellmate was taken to the hospital with coronavirus symptoms. A couple days later the jail began testing people in the 18-bunk cell. Positive results started rolling in.
“We all got curious. We knew it was airborne and stuff, so we started wondering, ‘You all are just going to leave us in here when COVID has been in here?’” Fry said.
Calloway Jailer Kenneth Claud said he left the men there because he didn’t have space in the jail to separate sick people from the healthy ones.
Early on during the pandemic, when the state released people en masse and authorities arrested fewer people to keep populations low, Claud said the jail was holding about 100 people, the fewest he’d seen in years.
But Claud said that number had been climbing since last September, partially because the state had been slow to transfer people from the jail to prisons during the pandemic. Typically, Claud said the state would transfer eight to 10 from the jail every month but that process stopped during the pandemic. “There really wasn’t hardly any movement from the jails to the state prisons to speak of,” Claud said.
Claud said the detention center had around 30 cases in December and January.
“Those thirty-something that tested positive for it, some of them really displayed hardly anything,” Claud said. “On the other hand, there were some that displayed a whole lot of symptoms and felt pretty sick, I’m sure.”
Fry said everyone in his cell eventually had symptoms of some kind. He lost his sense of smell and taste before he had even been tested. He asked medical staff what would happen if he tested positive.
“They said, ‘Nothing. You’re going to stay right here,’” Fry said, so he decided not to get tested.
Caldwell did get tested, but he said the jail never told him the results. Medical staff gave him steroids and cough syrup, but Caldwell said that wasn’t helping. He lost nearly 15 pounds and eventually needed to be taken in a wheelchair to the hospital, where he tested positive for the coronavirus and pneumonia.
Handcuffed to his hospital bed in the coronavirus wing, as doctors struggled to stabilize his blood pressure, Caldwell remembers feeling happy.
“I was so sick, but I was so happy at the same time,” he said. “If they hadn’t taken me that night I believe I would have died.”
The State Slows Things Down
Some jailers argue the state has some responsibility for the crowded conditions.
When the state inspected the Kenton County Detention Center in November, it found the jail was operating over capacity by 38 people and that six dormitories required people to sleep on the floor.
The DOC said the jail was out of compliance, and needed to submit a corrective action plan. In response, former jailer Terry Carl told the DOC he couldn’t provide a corrective action plan because the state is responsible for the remedy: transferring out the state prisoners that were supposed to be temporarily held for processing at his jail.
Carl said the state had only moved a handful of people since the pandemic began, despite his asking multiple times. He announced his retirement later that month, midway through his sixth term as jailer.
The new jailer, Marc Fields, said the jail’s population has declined since November but was rising again as arrests began to increase in the spring.
Jails are also responsible for coordinating vaccinations on their own.
Renee McDaniel, executive director of the Kentucky Jailers Association, says jails in less populated areas seem to have better luck getting their hands on surplus vaccines. Since larger cities have more people to vaccinate in the general population, McDaniel said, “there aren’t as many as readily available to move into a controlled system, like a jail, where people cannot leave, go get vaccinated, and then come back.”
Claud says vaccinations will start at the Calloway County Detention Center by the end of the month. That’s too late for Caldwell, who is still feeling the effects of the virus months after he was released from jail.
The relief he felt at the hospital was short-lived. He posted bail and was released straight from the hospital on Jan. 7. Just over a week later, on his 52nd birthday, Caldwell’s nose started bleeding profusely and he considered going to the emergency room. His feet became swollen when he caught the virus, and they’re still painfully inflamed.
Caldwell doesn’t have a car, so he relies on friends and family for transportation but the virus has complicated that resource.
“With the coronavirus people, even family members, they love you, but they got to be careful,” Caldwell said. He’s been bouncing back and forth between friends’ houses while he gets back on track.
“I’m just happy to be alive, I pray and stuff, but this is the lowest I’ve been in a long time,” Caldwell said.
“It’s almost like I should have stayed in jail.”
Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Before KyCIR, he was a reporter the Center for Public Integrity and a digital producer for WBUR in Boston.