Louisville Jail Counts 12 Deaths in Ten Months
by Jo Ellen Nott
Before November 29, 2021, Louisville Metro Department of Corrections (LMDC) averaged three prisoner deaths per year. Ten months later, that number had skyrocketed; a dozen lives were lost in the lockup by October 3, 2022.
As of April 2022, LMDC has a new director, after a no-confidence vote sent previous director Dwayne Clark into retirement. He had assumed command of the jail in 2019, after serving ten years as Chief of Staff. His replacement is Jerry Collins, who had a 20-year career at LMDC before retiring in 2021 and taking the top job at Indiana’s Clark County Jail.
Missteps and failure to observe policy are blamed for some of the jail deaths, along with the usual excuses: overcrowding and understaffing. To address the latter, Collins implemented hiring incentives and a lateral transfer program. To combat overdoses from smuggled drugs, prisoner mail is now scanned and digitized, and two new state-of-the-art body scanners check employees and visitors for contraband. To restrict self-harm, there are eight newly retrofitted suicide-watch cells, plus cameras in single-person cells and Radio Frequency ID tags that guards must scan to prove cell checks.
The four-story jail has served Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County since the two governments merged in 2003. Built in 1968 to house the Metropolitan Sewer District, it was retrofitted 23 years ago, but now exceeds its designed capacity of 1,352. Currently it holds 1,793 beds and houses an average of 1,400 people daily.
In general population dorms, some prisoners sleep on mattresses atop plastic “boats” that look like oversized trash-can lids. Others simply sleep on the floor. On the day of Stephanie Dunbar’s suicide in December 2021, all 19 cells in the women’s dorm were full, and at least five detainees were bedded down on the floor. Dunbar was locked in an attorney conference booth with no running water, no toilet and no bed. She died just over 18 hours later.
“The dorms are jam-packed,” said Daniel Johnson, President of the employee’s union, Louisville Corrections No. 77 of the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police. “Inmates are sleeping under beds, and on tables and anywhere they can find a spot on the floor and tensions are running high because human beings need that little bit of space.”
Johnson also alluded to overcrowding in defense of former guard Darrell Taylor, 32, who was charged with using excessive force on Brandon Robinson — a mentally ill detainee who “probably shouldn’t have been in general population to begin with,” Johnson said. Taylor was convicted by a federal jury on October 7, 2022, and is awaiting sentencing in January 2023.
Understaffing has also contributed to preventable deaths, Johnson admitted. In September 2021, his union counted an average of 15 guards on duty for some 1,600 people incarcerated. Safe staffing levels, he said, would require 55 or 60 guards.
Michele Deitch, Director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, notes that understaffing leads to “cutting of corners” that leaves prisoners unwatched and unchecked. The night before Kenneth Hall, 59, died in November 2021, lying in his own urine and feces, a fellow prisoner reported that Hall was “laying [sic] on the floor of his cell knocking on the door … asking to be helped back up on his bed, but no one helped him.”
When Dunbar committed suicide in December 2021, guards falsified observation records because they allegedly did not have time to conduct all their assigned checks. One guard was reportedly working alone on the women’s floor of the jail, on forced overtime. As a result, Dunbar spent the last 18 hours of her life without any of the checks mandated every 20 minutes for a detoxing detainee.
“It winds up being a situation where you don’t have enough staff members there and the staff members who are there are exhausted and just have extremely low morale,” said Christine Tartaro, a jail suicide expert from New Jersey’s Stockton University. She called it “a perfect storm in terms of not being able to properly supervise people and just not doing the job according to the standards that are set.”
These are the people who have died at LMDC since November 2021:
November 29, 2021 – Kenneth Hall, 59, was found unresponsive, lying in body waste from a colostomy bag he was apparently unable to maintain. He was arrested 20 days earlier for failure to register as a sex offender. A mix-up prevented a requested transfer to a hospital, according to the jail’s medical provider, Wellpath.
December 3, 2021 – Rickitta Smith, 34, was pronounced dead at a hospital after being found unresponsive in her cell at the jail. She was booked two days earlier on misdemeanor and felony drug charges.
December 4, 2021 – Stephanie Dunbar, 48, fatally hanged herself with a soiled pair of pants four days after an arrest for assault. The homeless woman was not treated for alcohol detox and left unobserved for hours in a locked attorney conference booth.
January 1, 2022 – Gary Wetherill, 41, fatally hanged himself five days after his arrest for failing to register as a sex offender.
January 9, 2022 – Keith R. Smith, 66, died at a hospital after being found unresponsive in the jail’s medical housing unit. He was arrested four days earlier on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass and possession of drug paraphernalia.
February 6, 2022 – Lesley Starnes, 36, fatally hanged himself in his jail cell, where union President Johnson said a cut-down knife was too dull to be of use. Starnes was arrested for nonpayment of child support on January 9, 2022. He was being held for failure to post a $5,000 bond.
March 12, 2022 – Moman “B-Mo” Anderson, 32, died at a hospital after being found unresponsive in his cell at the jail. He was arrested three days earlier for a parole violation.
March 28, 2022 – Barry Williams Sr., 50, also died at a hospital after being found unresponsive in his jail cell. He had been held since May 2020 to await transfer to a state mental hospital. No foul play is suspected in his death, but Director Collins announced new security measures afterward designed to interrupt the flow of contraband drugs.
July 8, 2022 – Norman Sheckles, 44, died of a likely fentanyl overdose, based on evidence recovered at the scene by a K-9 unit. Sheckles had been held since September 2021 on drug trafficking, domestic violence and gun charges.
August 26, 2022 – Thomas Bradshaw, 43, died at a hospital after hanging himself at the jail. He was arrested on August 16, 2022, for panhandling in front of a “No Trespassing” sign.
September 22, 2022 – Buddy Stevens, 39, fatally hanged himself in his cell. He was arrested on multiple burglary charges on August 8, 2002.
October 3, 2022 – Bashar Ghazawi, 39, died of a suspected overdose. Hours earlier, he was convicted of fatally shooting his 32-year-old wife, Noor, in a half-botched murder-suicide attempt.
Sources: Louisville Courier-Journal, LEO Weekly, WAVE, WDRB, WFPL, WHAS, WLKY
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