When the government chooses to incarcerate a person, it also takes on the responsibility of caring for them. Read this op-ed from ACLU-KY Executive Director Amber Duke about the deadly conditions in the LMDC and what must be done to fix them.

It’s been just over two years since 15 people experienced drug overdose in a single month in Louisville Metro Department of Correction’s care.

In response, several community groups — including the ACLU of Kentucky, Black Lives Matter Louisville, the Louisville Urban League, The Bail Project, the Fairness Campaign, Louisville Coalition for the Homeless and more — sprang into action. We formed a coalition, Stakeholders for Change and LMDC, to highlight the deplorable and inhumane conditions there and call on former mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville Metro Council and others in the criminal legal system to take emergency action to correct them.

They refused — and more people died. In the year that followed our initial call to action, the LMDC death toll rose to 15 — including three people in one week. Fifteen daughters and sons, neighbors and community members lost their lives. All but one of them were being held pre-trial and had not been convicted of a crime.

When the government chooses to incarcerate a person, it also takes on the responsibility of caring for them. An arrest does not equal a death sentence. And in the commonwealth, the stakes are incredibly high: Kentucky incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth, and numerous people held in LMDC are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

While we cannot quickly undo the legacies of a broken cash bail system and antiquated, disproven War on Drugs policies that fuel mass incarceration, we cannot, and will not, accept deaths inside our jails. Two years later, Stakeholders for Change at LMDC continues to lead the push for better conditions in Louisville’s jails.

  • The city hired a new jail director, who meets with members of the Stakeholders’ group on a quarterly basis
  • Most cells and dorms were updated with suicide prevention measures;
  • New protocols for monitoring activity in dorms and cells were implemented;
  • New funding was secured for K-9 units and searches for contraband were expanded to include corrections officers
  • Narcan stations were installed in every dorm, and there is a Narcan “vending machine” at the exit lobby
  • Members of the stakeholders group are now welcome in the facility to conduct voter education and provide other educational benefits to those in detention
  • A public dashboard allows anyone to view live statistics about the jail population
  • Our coalition’s input was included in the recent Request for Proposals to identify a new vendor for healthcare in the jail.

In addition, our coalition led an Amnesty Campaign, which offered those with outstanding bench warrants the opportunity to clear their cases without fear of arrest. Over 150 individuals with low-level offenses, specifically nonviolent misdemeanors and class D felonies, signed up to appear in court, have their warrant set aside, and make a plan to resolve their case. Around 345 cases in which the only barrier to resolution was restitution — some for as little as $12 — were also cleared during the campaign.

Stakeholders for Change at LMDC has encouraged the County Attorney to continue to hold regular amnesty dockets to help keep people out of LMDC and the deadly conditions there. The Amnesty Campaign will take place again from February 9 – 11, 2024.

Despite these wins, there is much more work ahead to guarantee the safety of every person who passes through LMDC’s doors.

Our city still suffers from the crisis of addiction. Access to mental health services is still a major barrier for those who need it most. Cash bail and a beleaguered court system fail the people of Louisville time and time again. State level drug policies are outdated and ineffective. Communities don’t trust police. Policies steeped in racism and classism continue to punish marginalized communities.

Mayor Greenberg can, and should, direct his administration to improve conditions further and ultimately save lives. Thankfully, there hasn’t been a single death in LMDC since June of 2023. While we have stemmed the tide of deaths for now, we can do better, and the people of Louisville deserve better.