Fischer leaves door open for further investigations after fifth death at jail in six weeks

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  • Greg Fischer
    US politician

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has pledged to take action, including possibly calling for outside investigations, after another death at Louisville's Metro Corrections was reported over the weekend – the fifth in six weeks.

"What we're going to do is follow the facts, and let's see what the facts show us," Fischer said Monday. "Then we'll take the next step from there."

The latest death involving the downtown Louisville jail was reported Sunday morning after a 66-year-old man was found unresponsive in the Metro Corrections medical housing unit about 10 a.m. He was unable to be revived following lifesaving efforts, according to a statement from Metro Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham, and he was pronounced dead about 11 a.m. after being taken to University of Louisville Hospital.

The man was identified Monday afternoon by the Jefferson County Coroner's Office as Keith Smith, of Louisville. No cause of death was released pending autopsy results. He had been booked Wednesday on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass and possession of drug paraphernalia.

“The Louisville Metro Police’s Public Integrity Unit is investigating, a standard procedure, and Metro Corrections Director, Dwayne Clark, has directed Metro Corrections Professional Standards Unit to conduct a review of the case,” Durham said Sunday.

Sgt. Daniel Johnson, who serves as president of FOP Lodge 77 (which represents jail employees), said the death is still under investigation but it "currently has the appearance of a medical emergency."

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Sunday's news is not the first death at Louisville's jail in recent weeks. While Fischer noted that around three deaths are usually recorded at the jail in a typical year, five persons in jail custody have died over the past 41 days.

One man died while hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt at Louisville Metro Corrections on Jan. 2, jail personnel reported last weekend.

In late 2021, meanwhile, three people at the jail died within a five-day period in late November and early December. One of those deaths will be investigated by the FBI, Clark told Public Safety Committee members last month.

Staffing at Louisville's jail has emerged as a critical issue in recent months as well. Johnson said "over 150 vacancies" exist within the department, and with more employees, "we could offer a far better service and closer observation of those in our care."

"Since November we lost 17 sworn staff with 8 of those retirements," Johnson said Sunday in a statement. "We continue to use well over 10,000 hours of overtime a month. Officers are not only working 16 hours a day but many are having to cover multiple positions making it nearly impossible to give job responsibilities the attention that it deserves."

Fischer, speaking Monday morning, said the jail's medical housing unit was "adequately staffed with corrections officers and medical professionals at the time of the inmates death" but noted absences due to COVID-19 have been an issue at Metro Corrections, with "about 50" jail staffers currently out of work due to the coronavirus.

The number of people housed at the jail had dropped as of late last week from 1,665 to 1,412, Fischer said, in an attempt to take some weight off the shoulders of the staff.

The deaths, though, he said, are concerning, and require further review. Fischer said he's asked LMPD leaders to "accelerate their investigations, and if we determine there's any type of pattern to these recent deaths, we'll certainly open further investigations." The FBI is already involved with one investigation into a reported suicide last month at the jail, he said, and further involvement from federal officials is likely "if there's any type of pattern to these recent deaths."

Metro Corrections staffers recently voted to reject a proposed contract that would've boosted pay by 8% as well as increase starting salaries for new employees. Johnson said at the time jail workers did not believe the deal would "solve the current staffing crisis" at the facility.

Fischer said discussions about a new contract with Metro Corrections continued last week and over the weekend and that the union could vote "later this week" on a new deal. He said COVID-19 vaccine distribution has been prioritized in the jail and that conversations have also taken place recently with Wellpath, which provides medical and mental assistance at Metro Corrections, on a new contract that would "devote additional resources to health and wellness services at the jail."

Reporter Billy Kobin contributed. Lucas Aulbach can be reached at laulbach@courier-journal.com, 502-582-4649 or on Twitter @LucasAulbach.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville jail reports another prisoner death; fifth within 41 days

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