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Louisville jail, crowding reaches 'crisis'
By dnj.com
Published: 04/04/2011

An overcrowding “crisis” at Metro Corrections prompted its director to reopen a 60-year-old former jail temporarily this year, even though a 2005 state inspection found the facility “a considerable threat to the safety of the inmates.”

The old jail, above Louisville Metro Police headquarters at Seventh and Jefferson streets, doesn't meet Kentucky jail standards. It lacks necessary fire safety systems, among other deficiencies, and has failed to meet state certification requirements for decades.

But citing crowded conditions that he said threatened workers' safety, corrections chief Mark Bolton reopened the jail from Jan. 30 through Feb. 10, housing an average of about 50 inmates there each day.

And despite a cease-and-desist letter in February from the Kentucky Department of Corrections that ordered Metro Corrections not to house inmates there, Bolton makes no promises he won't use the facility again.

“I will open it again if I have to,” he said. “It's the lesser of two evils to make sure we're not cramming too many people in one place. … I'm going to do what I've got to do to make sure my staff is safe.”

The inmate capacity at Metro Corrections is 1,919 with the old jail and 1,790 without it. That includes 126 beds in the old jail, 370 beds in the Hall of Justice at Sixth and Jefferson streets and 440 beds at the Community Corrections Center, a minimum-security facility on East Chestnut.

But in recent months, the jail population has topped 2,100, with an average of 2,042 for the year, the highest since 2007.

And officials expect that number will be growing soon, as warmer months bring more arrests — and some of the beds at the Hall of Justice are sidelined by construction. Louisville metro government is spending nearly $5 million to replace the aging heating and cooling systems.

Bolton said he also expects a recently passed corrections bill in the state legislature to increase the local jail population, as more drug defendants end up in jail rather than prison because of changes aimed at reducing the state's prison population.

The overcrowding issue has led a metro jail commission — made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community leaders and corrections experts — to act quickly. The judges review and alter bonds of certain inmates to enable them to be released.

“We are in a crisis,” said Chief District Judge Sean Delahanty, a member of the commission, which was formed in 2007 to look into jail overcrowding. “We have to act and come to a solution. There is something very wrong with putting lawbreakers in a jail that doesn't conform to the law.”

Before this year, the old jail — called Unit 7 — was last used in 2008. Even then it was in violation of state standards, according to records obtained by The Courier-Journal.

During a recent tour of the old jail, Bolton said walking into the structure, built in 1954, was like “taking a trip back in time.”

And it was a time, inspectors have found, when jails lacked fire suppression or detection equipment or a smoke-evacuation system. Also, the old jail cell doors use an antiquated system for opening and shutting, which could slow evacuation in an emergency.

The new Metro Corrections building, opened in December 1999, was supposed to remove the need for the old jail. But the jail population has exploded in the past decade, climbing 34 percent, or more than 500 inmates, since 2002.

Jail crowding hadn't been an issue the past two years, partly because of the jail committee. In May 2008, it made several recommendations to reduce the number of inmates, including expanding the use of home incarceration.

In 2009 and early 2010, the jail population was steady, with an average of about 1,900 inmates; it began rising again in August 2010. Earlier this year, Bolton said, it went too far over capacity for too many straight days — topping 2,100 inmates — and forced him to reopen Unit 7.

In a 2004 inspection report, the state corrections department noted that the jail hadn't fixed previous noncompliance issues and that the state “was not aware the jail began using the (police department's) 3rd floor facility once again to relieve the overcrowding in the other facilities.”

The state thought the old jail had closed in 2000, according to the report.

That inspection, and subsequent ones, noted the jail was clean but that it lacked components necessary to ensure safety in a fire or other emergency.

A 2005 inspection found that the old jail was “a considerable threat to the safety of the inmates that are housed there” and an accident “waiting to happen.”

Metro Corrections promised to make renovations and continued using the old jail sporadically until Bolton was hired in 2008 and announced it would be closed completely.

But in January, Bolton told the jail commission he had no choice but to reopen Unit 7, and he notified the state of his plans.

Bolton told the jail committee he would use a “manual fire watch system,” meaning employing more guards to keep a lookout, according to minutes of a February committee meeting. Bolton hasn't had to open the old jail since the cease-and-desist letter from the state, since the numbers have not reached past the limit again.

Rodney Ballard, the deputy commissioner overseeing the Division of Probation & Parole and the Division of Local Facilities, said a state inspector ordered the city to bring in a fire-suppression contractor to test the jail's smoke-evacuation system.

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