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Timeline: The crisis at the downtown Louisville jail

Roberto Roldan

Louisville Metro’s Department of Corrections, responsible for more than 1,000 incarcerated people, has recently become the subject of multiple investigations and a change in leadership.

Last year, corrections officers staffing the downtown jail began a public push for support. They described in press conferences and community forums a facility that is putting its employees and residents in danger. Seven people incarcerated at the jail have died since late November, and there have been multiple mass overdose incidents.

WFPL News is continuing to cover the crisis at the downtown jail, as well as how elected leaders and criminal justice reform advocates are responding to it. Here is a timeline of the unfolding situation. It will be updated.

Sept. 21, 2021 -The Metro Corrections union and jail workers hold a community forum to discuss their concerns. They claim conditions at the jail are leading many corrections officers to quit, exacerbating the issue of under-staffing. Multiple officers describe a facility where dorm locks, elevators and radios are failing. And they say forced overtime, sometimes requiring 16-hour shifts, is leading to burnout.

Sept. 24, 2021 – Five women incarcerated at Louisville Metro Corrections are sent to the hospital following suspected overdoses. Jail officials say they do not know how the drugs entered the jail. All five women survived.

Sept. 29, 2021 – Metro Corrections union members vote they have ‘no confidence’ in Jail Director Dwayne Clark. A survey provided by the union also showed that the overwhelming majority of its members, more than 200, said they believe the jail is unsafe for staff and those incarcerated there.

Oct. 6, 2021 – Following a no confidence vote by members of the Metro Corrections union, Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee calls Clark for questioning. Council members press Clark on staffing shortages, forced overtime and employees quitting.

Nov. 29, 2021Activists who have been pushing for prison reform for years redouble their efforts as reports coming out of the Louisville jail show a dire situation. Data reviewed by WFPL News shows the number of people incarcerated is creeping back up after hitting a record low during the pandemic. Advocates say judges and elected officials appear more open to reforms given the current crisis.

Nov. 29, 2021 – A 59-year-old man, later identified as Kenneth Hall, dies while in custody. A Corrections spokesperson says Hall was found unresponsive in one of the jail’s housing units and died after being transported to University of Louisville Hospital.

Dec. 3, 2021 – Rickitta Smith, a 34-year-old Black woman and resident of the Park Hill neighborhood, becomes the second person to die in custody in one week. Corrections union officials say Smith appeared to be seizing before she was transferred to U of L Hospital, where she died. Clark also later said that Smith appeared to have a seizure before becoming unresponsive.

Dec. 4, 2021 – A 48-year-old Black woman, later identified as Stephanie Dunbar, dies by alleged suicide while in custody. Dunbar is the third person to die while in custody of the downtown Louisville jail that week.

Dec. 6, 2021 – A coalition of criminal justice advocacy groups, led by the ACLU of Kentucky, calls on Mayor Greg Fischer and other top officials to take action following the spate of in-custody deaths. They demand prosecutors stop seeking bail for people accused of nonviolent offenses and call for an increase in the number of mental health professionals staffing the jail.

Dec. 8, 2021 – Louisville Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee grills Clark about the recent in-custody deaths. Clark says he requested the FBI conduct a civil rights investigation into one of the deaths, although he wouldn’t specify which one.

Dec. 16, 2021 – Metro Council approves a mid-year budget adjustment that includes $72,000 for the creation of a canine unit within the jail to prevent more overdoses. The funding is sponsored by District 25 Council Member Amy Holton Stewart, a Democrat.

Jan. 2, 2022 – Jail officials claim 41-year-old Gary Wetherill died by suicide after being booked into the jail less than a week earlier. Wetherill becomes the fourth person to die in custody in a little more than a month.

Jan. 9, 2022Keith Smith, 66, dies after being found unresponsive in the medical housing unit, according to jail officials. Calls for Clark’s firing begin.

Jan. 10, 2022Fischer asks the Louisville Metro Police Department to “accelerate” investigations into the deaths at the jail. “This is very concerning,” Fischer says.

Jan. 31, 2022 – Three Metro Council members initiate a ‘no confidence’ vote against Clark and his executive staff citing the recent deaths, as well as low morale among corrections officers and a lack of urgency on drug smuggling. The resolution is sponsored by David James of District 6, Holton Stewart of District 25 and District 13’s Mark Fox, all Democrats.

Feb. 6, 2022Lesley Starnes, 36, dies at the Louisville jail while being held on a warrant for charges in Bullitt County. Officials claim it was an apparent suicide.

Feb. 14, 2022 – Fischer announces he’s appointing two Assistant Chiefs to help improve the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. Fischer also hires former Idaho Sheriff Gary Raney to conduct an independent investigation into the jail deaths.

Feb. 15, 2022 – A majority of Jefferson County District Court Judges vote to approve an emergency measure requiring a court appearance for all people being held in the jail on out-of-county warrants. The measure was proposed by Judge Julie Kaelin. She said it would prevent individuals with out-of-county warrants from sitting in jail for days or weeks without being told why they are there, whether they have a bond or when they will be transferred.

Feb. 17, 2022 – In an 18-6 vote, Louisville Metro Council says it has lost confidence in Clark and his executive staff. Fischer calls the vote an “an unnecessary distraction.” Metro Council also unanimously approves its own third-party investigation into the deaths and conditions at the facility.

Feb. 18, 2022Kaelin announces that the emergency measure to give regular hearings to people being held in Louisville on out-of-county warrants will not be implemented. Kaelin says she and other judges were notified by Chief District Judge Annette Karem the rule change would not move forward.

Feb. 24, 2022 – Criminal justice experts tell the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that inadequate mental health resources and policies are contributing to alleged suicide deaths at the Louisville jail.

March 11, 2022 – Two people being held at the jail are hospitalized after suspected Fentanyl overdoses, a Corrections spokesperson says. He says a corrections officer was also sent to the hospital after he came into contact with “a powdery substance” while searching a housing unit.

March 12, 2022 – A 32-year-old person incarcerated at the jail dies after being found unresponsive. They become the seventh person to die in custody in roughly four months. The person was booked into the jail four days prior for a parole violation warrant.

March 18, 2022Clark announces he will retire in April, following calls by community members and elected officials for him to be fired.

March 22, 2022Fischer says he will appoint Lt. Col. Jerry Collins to replace Clark when he retires in April. Collins is currently the Jail Commander in Clark County, Ind. According to a press release from Fischer’s office, Collins also worked at the Louisville jail from 2000 to 2021, when he retired from his post as a major in charge of training operations.

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