Louisville’s Jail Is A Slaughterhouse

The last time I sued the Louisville Metro Jail, I got to question the former director extensively. He was a real character, sort of like if Jerry Bruckheimer and Vince McMahon co-conceived a tough-but-fair police chief for a movie about a heist at the Kentucky Derby or something. I asked him if he thought there was an overcrowding problem at the jail. “Yes, absolutely.” But did that mean the staff, afflicted with a chronic case of vacancies, couldn’t effectively care for 2,500 bodies in a facility that was only built to hold 2,000? No, he said. They can do it. That was bullshit of course; they couldn’t, they can’t, and they don’t. Still, I sort of liked the old director, insofar as one can like someone who has devoted a career to keeping human zoos. 

I don’t know outgoing jail director Dwayne Clark all that well, but I don’t envy him. After all those people died on his watch, Metro Council passed a “no confidence” resolution against Clark, the city launched a long and expensive investigation into the jail’s policies and practices, and Clark announced his retirement. 

I thought about writing a satirical piece about all these goings-on, but decided against it because American jails are just not funny. There was a time when you could laugh at an Otis-the-town-drunk-in-the-hoosegow type because Otis wasn’t strapped naked to a restraint chair and tased into submission. But today, clowning on a metropolitan jail is a singularly humorless act. People go to jail and get beat up, tortured, raped and killed. Nothing funny about that. 

It’s true that the Louisville jail is an abattoir, a stinking sewage pipe, a hell undreamt of by the wildest acid trips of Dante Alighieri, Clive Barker, or Supergiant Games. Clark and the rest of LMDC’s longtime administrators certainly bear plenty of responsibility for that. But I’ll make you a bet: Even if you get rid of Clark and replace the entire staff, people will keep right on dying in that jail, just as they did under the last director and the director before that. What, then, could be the root of the problem? 

If you are not part of Metro Council or Mayor Fischer, you may skip this paragraph. For the rest of you, I hereby offer to investigate the problem at the jail for half of what you’re paying whoever to do whatever. OK, my investigation is complete. My finding is this: We are locking up too damn many people. Please send a check to my office.

It’s nice to have Clark, and by extension the jail itself, as a scapegoat for the problems inherent in caging thousands of people at a time. But how many decisionmakers are involved in locking someone up before they ever see the inside of that overgrown outhouse? In a town the size of Louisville, do we really need to segregate more than two thousand people from the rest of us? If so, is the best we can do for every last one of them a 6-foot by 8-foot box? Who’s responsible for making sure that a community has something besides an oubliette for people to go to when they need a little break from civilized society? 

A jail is supposed to be the terminal stop; the place we send folks when there’s nowhere left to send them. But in Louisville, as in most of America, the jail is pretty much the only stop. Are there genuinely good people working in corrections? No. But aren’t those people doing the best they can under the circumstances? Again, no. But still, what is Clark or anyone else supposed to do when we keep sending people downtown, even as bodies are mashed up against the interior bricks and limbs poking out of the windows? Turn them away? I submit that if a Metro jail director ever did something half so brave they’d be out on their ass within a week, with or without a vote of no-confidence.

If you missed the LEO’s coverage of the death of Keith Smith while in LMDC custody, mark your place in this column, read it, then come back. What was your reaction to Smith getting locked up after nine — godalmighty nine — failures to appear? He had it coming, right? The judge did what most of us would have done: kept Smith in a cage, even while acknowledging that “he probably needs a little bit more assistance than what the criminal justice system can provide for him.” 

As a community, we suffer from a stunning lack of imagination combined with a deliberate dearth of resources. We are conditioned to believe that there are only two places for Smith and countless others like him: Jail, or back to the Seelbach to fuck with weary travelers who are full of veal and triple sec. We’ve believed it for so long that we’ve made it intractably, tragically true. It scarcely matters whether the visionaries among us can imagine alternatives. There are none. 

A default button marked “JAIL” makes for an easy solution to complex social problems. But here’s the catch: If prosecutors seek jail time or high cash bail (which is what prosecutors are trained to do), and judges send people to jail (which is the only place they can send them), and cops lock people up until their arraignment dates at the earliest (which is just how we do things for some reason), and we keep letting these folks run the whole show (sure, why not), then a jail is going to be overcrowded. No getting around that. Combine overcrowding with staff shortages and you will have deaths and rapes and torture and mayhem and layers of shit and blood and piss because what we’ve set up, after all, is a variation on a concentration camp, one that is treated as a necessary institution instead of an aberration, not a final stop but the first and only place to send our undesirables. We set these camps up in the middle of our towns and forget about them, noticing only when the stench of death overpowers. 

Here’s yet another set of questions to consider, one with implications so bleak that you might as well stop reading now. What if the deaths of the last few months are the only thing keeping our community engaged with jail conditions, or with criminal justice at all? Suppose the jail expanded to hold 10,000 people, and we locked up only 9,000. Suppose we paid an adequate number of staffers a decent wage and trained them to keep people more-or-less alive. Suppose there were no deaths or serious injuries again, ever. Just 9000 bodies warehoused in that hellmouth, subjected to moderate-to-severe levels of misery for weeks/months/years at a time. Would you give more than a passing thought to those people, or to the jail, ever again? 

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. His book “Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class” is available wherever you get your books.