A Tale Of Two Jails: A Look At The History Of Jails In Louisville

Mar 15, 2023 at 12:57 pm
Archival photo of the jail in downtown Louisville.
Archival photo of the jail in downtown Louisville. Archival photo

As LEO previously reported, in a 14-month period, 13 deaths occurred at an overcrowded Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, including one suicide by an inmate who had been left alone in a cramped “attorney booth” which, unlike a normal cell, does not have beds, running water or toilets.

Add this to a beleaguered Metro police force, which has been beset in recent years by scandals such as the botched raid that ended up costing Breonna Taylor her life, and the need for reform seems imperative. The U.S. Justice Department announced March 8 that an investigation that took place following Taylor’s death showed a years-long pattern of discriminatory policing in the department, and The New York Times Magazine, in a recent cover story, referred to Louisville Metro Police as “one of the country’s most hated police departments” in the U.S.

Meanwhile, there have been calls for the city to build a new jail in the wake of the ongoing cases of deaths inside the walls at Metro Corrections.

The situation isn’t unprecedented here. In the early 1900s, such conditions at the then-county jail, which had been built in 1844 on Jefferson Street between Sixth and Seventh and was expanded in 1866, became so dark that they also made headlines. And the conditions of the jailhouse in the 1800s led to the construction in 1905 of what is now a municipal office building, but once was lauded as one of the better jails in the country. Will history repeat? Perhaps. But history also shows that sometimes change is slow to happen.

Reporting from The Courier Journal dating back as far as the 1860s shows a grand jury committee found the county jail then as being too small and “badly arranged,” with conditions largely unsanitary. The facility had replaced a previous jail that had been described as being “a most miserable edifice, in a most filthy and ruinous condition,” according to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, but it too quickly became outdated.

One story, published Sept. 10, 1866, reported that inspectors discovered cells designed for two inmates to be inhabited by four or five, with only two cots and bedding that “had the appearance of not having been clean.” One woman was found to have only a single blanket for her bedding and another sleeping “over a cartload of ashes.” Male and female prisoners were being housed together in a jail estimated to have been at double its intended capacity.

“In summing up our observations,” the committee wrote, “we regret to report that we consider the whole as a nuisance, and earnestly recommend a prompt improvement of the same.”

It was not for another 41 years that a new Jefferson County Jail would open.

Fourteen years after that grand jury assessment, another circuit court grand jury member, Thomas Shanks, would investigate complaints about the jail that involved females being held together in a single cell, apparently as a way to segregate them from males. However, the arrangement had led to non-violent inmates being housed together with “very vicious characters,” leading to violence. In addition, there were no tables or chairs in the cell.

In another part of the jail, male inmates complained about the quality of the food, particularly the odor and flavor of the meat being served – and while the inspection declared the food to be “wholesome,” it was discovered during the assessment that meat was being stored on a shelf over a urinal. A sub-headline over the story read, “A Queer Pantry in Which to Keep the Prisoners’ Beefsteaks.”

A Courier Journal probe in 1887, in response to further prisoner complaints about the food and conditions at the jail, found conditions to be favorable for the inmates, but two years later, a 21-year-old man named Nathan Schwartz was arrested for forging a check and managed to somehow sneak arsenic into his cell. He used it to commit suicide when he was left unguarded, and the jail was in the headlines again.

A plague at the former jail was one of alcohol-related delirium tremens – what were then referred to as “the jim-jams” – causing hysteria, hallucinations and occasional violence among inmates. The jail physician, Dr. Samuel Garvin, spoke to The Courier Journal at length in 1890, saying that in his years in service to the jail, he had seen some 1,500 cases of delirium tremens. Inmates would hallucinate having snakes crawling on them, small alligators attacking them, worms burrowing into their skin, and worse. 

“Monkeys, rats and other animals are a constant annoyance to the victims of this horrid disease,” Garvin said. Two of the patients he saw during his time would commit suicide during their cases of delirium tremens, including one who managed to reach outside his cell to break a pane of glass and stab himself in the heart repeatedly, “cutting through the walls of the chest to the extent that the heart could be seen pulsating through the wounds,” Garvin said.

Heading into the early 1900s, a wave of concern grew in northern states about juveniles being jailed and tried in the same jails and courts as adults. While Louisville’s jailer at the time, John R. Pflanz, pledged the jail was far less likely to house juveniles as in other cities, it did happen. When interviewed in January of 1902, Pflanz noted there were currently 12 boys under 18 jailed here in Louisville alongside adults. It was a concern among many that led to the building of the new jail at 514 W. Liberty St. (then called Green Street) three years later. 

As the old jail’s life wound down and a new jail was being built, the facility that had served the city for 61 years was remembered as a place with plaster falling from walls, floors and window frames “worm-eaten,” and walls full of vermin. Several inmates escaped over the years, with bricks being removed and iron bars being cut through with smuggled-in tools. The prisoners would make their escape by climbing down from the roof using a water pipe. Nearly 220,000 prisoners were jailed there over the life of the jail, which was later torn down to make way for a courthouse annex.

On June 8, 1905, 180 prisoners, with 13 convicted murderers among them, were moved in police wagons from the old jail to the new, with deputy jailer Eugene Blandford locking the main door for the last time at the old facility around noon that day. Spectators lined the streets to watch as if it were a holiday parade, and when inmates were deposited into cells, many of them yelled through barred windows to the throng, begging for tobacco and cigars, according to a Courier Journal account. A feral black cat that had been named Bill Goebel by jail staff sat waiting for the changeover on the steps of the new county jail, ready to assume residence in his new home.

Jail physician Garvin was the last to move his offices from the old jail to the new that day. He told the newspaper, “I have seen this old jail empty twice in my life. I remember when the moved the prisoners from where the St. Nicholas Hotel now stands to the old jail in the rear of this one. It was considered a fine institution then … (but) that was sixty-one years ago.”

Two years later, that old jail was rubble, making way for a new use. Time will tell when history will repeat yet again. •