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Another person dies at Louisville jail; 11th in less than a year

Louisville Metro Department of Corrections officials say a person died by suicide early Thursday morning while in custody at the downtown jail.

Corrections officials say officers found the individual attempting suicide by hanging around 3:10 a.m. Officers immediately provided emergency aid, but first responders pronounced the person dead, according to a statement.

The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office later identified the man as 39-year-old Buddy Stevens, who had been booked into the jail on Sept. 8. According to court records, Stevens was being held on a $5,000 bond for allegedly breaking into a building in Old Louisville.

“Director [Jerry] Collins has activated the Metro Corrections Peer Support Team and ensured that mental health services were made available for incarcerated individuals who may have been impacted by this death,” jail officials said.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about how long the person had been incarcerated or when the person’s identity would be released. The Metro Corrections Professional Standards Unit and Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit are investigating the alleged death by suicide, as is standard protocol.

Since last November, 11 people have died while incarcerated at Louisville’s downtown jail. It’s a faster rate than larger, nearby jails in Nashville and Indianapolis.

On top of the recent spate of deaths, numerous people have overdosed while incarcerated at the Louisville jail. Last September, five women were hospitalized in a mass overdose event. All of them survived.

Former Jail Director Dwayne Clark retired in April amid calls to step down and votes of “no confidence” by Louisville Metro Council and his own staff. Collins stepped in to fill the leadership void and has since redoubled efforts to stop drug trafficking and suicides.

But some community leaders say the efforts have not gone far enough.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, an activist and director of VOCAL-KY, is part of a coalition of advocacy groups and nonprofits focused on changing how the criminal justice system operates locally. The coalition emerged after three people died at the Louisville jail in a single week last year.

Parrish-Wright said the news Thursday morning that another person had died while in custody hurt every member of the coalition.

“It’s gut wrenching every time,” she said.

In conversations with city officials, Parrish-Wright said coalition members have pushed them to focus on reducing the number of residents who are being held in jail awaiting trial. She said current conditions inside the jail are dangerous and the facility is overcrowded.

“The only way they’re going to be able to truly deal with the policies and procedures and things that are in place is if they get as many of those people as possible out of jail,” Parrish-Wright said. “Their numbers have stayed above 1,400 [people incarcerated] for months now.”

Between February and June of 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average daily number of people incarcerated at the Louisville jail dropped from 1,851 to 1,252, but have slowly crept back up.

Kungu Njuguna, a policy analyst for the ACLU of Kentucky, echoed the need for city officials to explore “de-incarceration.” Njuguna said the jail’s mental health services contractor, Wellpath, also needs to be held accountable for the recent in-custody deaths that appear to be the result of suicide.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer promised in February that the city would review its contract with Wellpath, as well as the jail’s suicide risk assessment tools.

“What is Wellpath’s role in this?” Njuguna said. “We are paying this company millions of dollars and the biggest thing they do is take care of the mental health of those that are incarcerated. They are failing at it, and I think they should have to account for that.”

Njuguna said Thursday that the stakeholders coalition would continue to advocate for investments in mental health resources and drug abuse treatment in the community and educate the public, judges and prosecutors about the need to limit incarceration for non-violent offenses.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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