‘I Fear for My life’: Inmate Lawsuits Offer Glimpse At Conditions In Louisville’s Jail

[Editors note: Due to the sensitive nature of the allegations and the current conditions at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, LEO made the editorial decision to withhold the surnames of plaintiffs named in the lawsuits.]

A series of recent handwritten federal lawsuits filed by people incarcerated in Louisville’s jail paint a grim picture of a facility that they say is dangerously overcrowded, filthy and understaffed, where inmates fear that they will be the next to die amid a recent surge in jail deaths.

“I fear for my life and that the understaffing and overcrowding has caused rude and unusual punishment and if I die; staff will not [resuscitate] me in a timely manner,” wrote Tyree, a pretrial detainee, in a federal lawsuit filed on Feb. 28.

Tyree’s lawsuit came after six Louisville Metro Department of Corrections inmates had died since Nov. 29 of last year. Since the lawsuit was filed, two more people have died in LMDC custody.

In 2020, there were three handwritten federal lawsuits against LMDC director Dwayne Clark. Last year, there was one such lawsuit up until Oct. 1. But since Oct. 1 of last year, there have been at least 29 handwritten lawsuits filed by inmates complaining about conditions, a surge in lawsuits that coincides with a surge in inmate deaths at the facility.

“[I] am traumatized by the ongoing deaths within the jail and fear for my own mental and physical health,” wrote Tyree in his Feb. 28 lawsuit, which also alleged he was denied medical treatment after exposure to an inmate who had tested positive for COVID-19. “I have seen inmates get brutally beat and no help from staff. I have filed up to 10 grievances and they continue to go unanswered. We have gone up to a week without cleaning supplies during the pandemic. We are made to be held in cells in preparation for court unmasked and the staff is unmasked as well.”

The themes brought up by Tyree’s lawsuit were repeated in other lawsuits.

In a lawsuit filed on Feb. 22, Leslie, another pretrial detainee, wrote: “Plaintiff housed in a overcrowded dorm with sick inmates which cause plaintiff to get sick and officers on 4th floor denied plaintiff Leslie [Redacted] medical attention when needed it and medical staff tell plaintiff ‘he will be fine quit complaining unless you have a life of death issue.’”

The 29 recent lawsuits that LEO reviewed were filed by inmates acting as their own counsel. Some have similar handwriting and use similar wording, likely pointing to a person inside the jail acting as a “jailhouse lawyer” for incarcerated persons at LMDC. Without legal counsel, such lawsuits face an uphill battle. But their contents — and the sharp uptick in filings in the last six months — provide a rare window into the jail, although lawsuit claims represent only one side’s version of events.

Cara Tobe, an organizer with The 490 Project, an activist group focused on public safety reform, saw the presence of lawsuits from before the spike in jail deaths began as troubling.

“If those complaints were happening pretty consistently beforehand, they knew something was going on. Leadership knew that this was happening. Leadership at the jail knew that the conditions were — and are — very poor and inhospitable and inhumane,” she said after LEO provided her with several of the 28 complaints. “They just kept putting more and more people back into cages. And from [the lawsuits], they’re not even keeping the cages clean.”

The most constant allegation in the lawsuits is that LMDC did not follow COVID-19 protocols, even as the omicron variant was spreading at a record-pace in Kentucky. Lawsuits allege that the jail knowingly left sick inmates in their dorms instead of segregating them, failed to provide cleaning supplies and refused to respond to medical requests from sick inmates. Many of the plaintiffs say they contracted COVID-19 as a result of the jail’s actions.

Tyree, who filed the Feb. 28 suit, wrote that in late December, “around 9 inmates and myself became bedridden. One inmate pressed the intercom saying ‘he’s gonna die’ but nobody came.” 

An excerpt from a Feb. 28 federal lawsuit filed by Tyree, an incarcerated person at Louisville’s troubled jail.

He wrote that on Dec. 28, 2021 he filled out a Health Services Request slip complaining of severe headache, neck pain and toothache. However, he wrote that it took until Feb. 11 — a month and a half after the complaint — to be seen by medical staff.

An inmate named Nathaniel, who filed a federal suit on Feb. 18, wrote that he “thought he was gonna die due to his health problems” after he came down with COVID-19 along with asthma, high blood pressure and trouble breathing. He said his Health Services Request slips he filed were never responded to.

Metro Corrections did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. 

But in a Jan. 19 response to one inmate’s lawsuit, a lawyer from the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office representing LMDC and Dwayne Clark wrote: “Defendant denies the allegations of the Plaintiff’s complaint that the conditions of the jail are or were dangerous; states that there were proper protocols in place for Covid 19 to prevent the spread of the virus in response to the Plaintiff’s allegations.”

The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office asked for the dismissal of the complaint in its entirety. Barring that, they requested a trial by jury “on all triable issues” as well as “The Defendant’s costs incurred in defending this action, to include a reasonable attorney fee; and…All other relief to which the Defendant may appear entitled.”

The lawsuit the County Attorney’s Office was responding to was filed on Nov. 4 of last year by a man who described the jail being so crowded with people sleeping on the floor that “us inmates can’t walk around without stepping on somebodys bed.” He also said he was denied medical assistance while displaying COVID-19 symptoms “because they said they was scared of catching COVID-19.”

Daniel Johnson, president of the union that represents jail workers, took exception to Clark’s denial that the jail is dangerous, as conveyed by the County Attorney’s Office’s response to the inmate’s lawsuit.

“We are overcrowded. We are understaffed. It is absolutely dangerous,” he said.

A pamphlet for inmates about COVID-19 protocols at the jail dated July 2020 said: “If someone in your housing location tests positive for COVID-19 that person will be moved to medical isolation & your housing unit will be placed on lockdown / quarantine for airborne precautions.”

It added: “Medical staff will determine when your dorm can return to normal operations.”

Johnson, the union president, said that solution was unable to stop the spread of COVID-19, with the virus already spreading within dorms once an individual who tested positive was removed.

“You pretty much had to deal with everybody as if they were COVID positive,” he said. “We were breaking up fights with people that were COVID positive and fighting one another… We had to do CPR on people who were COVID positive, and then go home to our families. It’s a dangerous environment.”

Louisville’s health department did not make a representative available for an interview. But in a written statement, spokesperson Kathy Turner said: “We meet with LMDC weekly to field any COVID related questions, provide guidance and recommendations. Regularly we review their COVID testing reports, accommodate requests for testing supplies and tour the facility to make specific recommendations on how individuals are housed.”

The mayor’s office declined to comment on pending litigation. But, responding to a question about jail conditions, spokesperson Jessica Wethington said the city remained “committed to creating the safest jail conditions possible” and has taken steps to reduce inmate counts and to attract and retain “top talent” to work at the jail. The statement added that the city is reviewing its medical contract with Wellpath, the health care company that provides medical services at LMDC.

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky said that while he could not comment on the veracity of the claims in the lawsuits, “given the uptick in the number and what we know that is actually happening because people are dying, I think it’s something the city and officials should pay attention to.”

Many lawsuits reviewed by LEO consistently alleged that conditions inside LMDC were filthy and that inmates were denied adequate cleaning supplies.

“I’ve been requesting cleaning supplies dailey but have only been given a broom,” wrote a person named Jariian in a lawsuit filed on Feb. 13. “I’m also waking up to horrible smells and a floor full of other sleeping inmates. My bail is so high that my family nor am I able to pay it.”

Johnson, the jail worker union president, said he had not heard of issues regarding the delivery of cleaning supplies. However, he then went into detail describing how officers at the jail are so short-staffed that they are overwhelmed and in “constant-movement, non-stop” doing their rounds, getting inmates ready for court, letting inmates confined to solitary out at their designated time, assisting food and medical distribution and breaking up fights.

Speaking to LEO on Wednesday, Johnson said there were 467 people in custody on the fourth floor of the jail with only two officers.

“You’re talking about one or two officers on every floor with 400 people you’re trying to manage. It’s impossible,” he said. “Then you throw cleaning supplies in on top of that? We get lucky if we can get cleaning supplies in once a shift.”

As deaths at the jail continue, so does the flow of lawsuits raising the alarm of conditions inside the facility.

In the latest lawsuit, filed on March 29, a pretrial detainee named Danny wrote that his dorm was so overcrowded that people were “sleeping on top of tables, by sinks & toilets, showers.” He wrote that in early February — at a time when masks were still required in Louisville government buildings and omicron case counts remained high — guards refused to wear masks when entering his cell.

The guards “laughed at me for saying please put face mask on,” he wrote.

In response to a Feb. 8 grievance form the person filled out complaining of overcrowding and accusing the jail of not following COVID-19 protocols that is attached to the lawsuit, an officer wrote: “Per policy, inmate cannot regrieve the same issue within a six month period.”

The breadth of inmate grievances filed with the jail is not clear. LEO filed an open records request for inmate grievance forms from recent months, but that request was denied, with Metro Government saying: “Grievances of inmates are being withheld at this time pursuant to KRS 197.023 [the state law surrounding Department of Corrections’ duty to maintain grievance reports.] A grievance report shall be an open public record and made available to any person who requests to see the file at the site as long as the inmate has signed a waiver of confidentiality.” The only grievance forms LEO has seen were those attached to federal lawsuits. 

The deaths of eight inmates over the span of 119 days means that the jail averaged one death roughly every two weeks, though over the course of one week spanning the end of November and start of December, three inmates died.

The rush of deaths has put pressure on LMDC as well as city government as a whole. In February, Metro Council issued a vote of no confidence in LMDC director Dwayne Clark, who the 29 recent lawsuits are against. The body also voted to hire a former FBI agent to investigate recent deaths at the jail.

Last month, LMDC director Dwayne Clark, who the 29 recent lawsuits are against, announced that he would be retiring. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer quickly named Clark County, Indiana jail commander and LMDC veteran Jerry Collins the new director. The move was criticized by those calling for new blood and who wanted to see transparency in the selection process. Collins takes up his post on Monday, April 4.

On March 28, after the most recent death, LMDC announced increased security measures to protect against overdose deaths, including the use of new body scanners, delivering copies of mail instead of some original mail items to inmates and no longer allowing inmates to receive books and magazines from third-parties.

While the most recent measures have focused on overdoses, three of the deaths have been described as suicides.

Njuguna, the ACLU policy strategist, said efforts by his group and others to encourage reform felt like “yelling into the void” after the two most recent deaths.

“It doesn’t appear that anything has changed,” he said. “I think if the systematic changes we were calling for were in place, I think some of these individuals would not have died. We could have saved lives. They just do not have the urgency we think they need to have.”

Reforms the ACLU of Kentucky has asked for include stopping arrests for low-level offenses and ending the issuance of bench warrants with cash bonds except in cases where there is a serious threat to community safety. 

At a press conference in downtown Louisville’s Jefferson Square Park on Wednesday, Cane Weitherspoon, the son of Stephanie Dunbar, one of the eight inmates to die at the jail in recent months, spoke out.

“Anybody who passed away, it’s not they fault that they passed away because y’all was understaffed,” he said. “That’s y’all’s fault that y’all was understaffed.”

If you know someone in Louisville’s jail who would like to share their story with LEO, they can reach out by writing to:

Josh Wood
c/o LEO Weekly
974 Breckenridge Lane #170
Louisville, KY

Family and friends of incarcerated people — as well as formerly incarcerated people — can reach me by email at [email protected] 

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