Like most of Kentucky’s local jails, the Rockcastle County Detention Center is perilously overcrowded, largely with state inmates who would serve their time in a more spacious and better staffed state prison if they were nearly anywhere else in the country.
On a recent weekday, Rockcastle County Jailer Nathan Carter led a visitor through his cramped facility. Pale and unshaven prisoners slowly sat up, blinking, to stare at the intruders. Some lay in bunks; others sprawled on the floor.
Inmates sleep whenever and wherever they can. During a state inspection of the jail, one room meant for five people held 11, another room meant for 10 held 17 and 10 people lived in a dark detox cell with no beds. Those not lucky enough to have a bunk get a thin mat, blanket and pillow and claim a dirty patch of concrete.
“This is out of necessity,” Carter said, gesturing at the tangle of bodies. “I don’t like inmates on the floor. I think it’s demeaning. But it’s what we’re stuck with.”
The 73-bed jail in Mount Vernon that week reported holding 135 people, putting it at 184 percent of its maximum capacity. The population has reached 155, at which point inmates sleep in hallways, Carter said.
“Where there’s that many of them and there’s four of us (corrections officers), that’s a safety hazard,” he said. “For the inmates, you’re cooped up with 22 people in the same cell. People get agitated. You can’t get away from each other. Eventually, yeah, it’s gonna cause a fight. I tell them, ‘I know you’re crowded in here, fellas. Just try to keep your cool.’”
The head count that week included 55 state inmates serving time for felony convictions as well as six state inmates who had been sentenced for felonies and who awaited the Kentucky Department of Corrections’ next move. It’s not unusual for state inmates to sit in limbo for a month or more after their sentencing hearings while the DOC bureaucracy churns out a housing assignment.
The image of jail that many people have from movies — small, barred cells that each bunk a couple of inmates — is outdated. That’s understandable. Most jailers don’t allow photography inside their walls, so it’s a hidden world. Seven local jailers declined the Herald-Leader’s requests to take photographs of inmate living conditions in their facilities. Several did provide tours to a reporter.
A typical Kentucky jail consists of larger rooms, perhaps 300 square feet, called “dorms” or “pods,” with a cluster of bunk-beds on one side and a couple of metal picnic benches bolted to the floor on the other. A television blares throughout the daylight hours, although there is no daylight because there are no windows. Lighting is dim. The air is humid, smelling of sweat, urine and sometimes cigarette smoke.
There are concrete block walls and a steel door. Apart from occasional trips to a tiny, paved recreation area, weather permitting, most inmates spend all of their time in this small room. Here they sleep, eat, urinate, defecate, shower and idle away the days.
Or in the case of state inmates serving lengthier felony sentences, idle away the years.
“We just don’t have the space we need for programming. I wish we did. I wish I had more religious programs, I wish had more educational programs, I wish I had more addiction treatment programs,” said Madison County Jailer Steve Tussey.
Tussey led a visitor through the jammed dorms of his own facility, where the majority of inmates were trying to snooze through the middle of the day. There was nothing else for most of them to do.
“They stay here in their cells most of the time,” Tussey said. “And if they just want to sleep, then to be honest, that makes things easier for us.”
Overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed
This spring, Kentucky’s county jails were packed at 121 percent of their capacity.
But that’s just a statewide average. Three dozen jails were filled beyond the 138 percent limit recommended by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2011 inmate overcrowding case. Some jails routinely hold more than twice as many people as intended, resulting in dangerous conditions for inmates and staff.
“In some ways, it’s a testament to our jailers that it hasn’t gotten even worse than it has,” said state Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. “I’m continually surprised that we don’t have disasters in our jails because we don’t have enough people, and the people we do have, we don’t pay them enough. It’s a recipe for a much worse situation, like a mass riot or breakouts.”
Inmates say there are riots in Kentucky jails — outbreaks of violence where prisoners temporarily seize control of at least part of the facilities — but they typically stay out of the news unless the exterior walls are breached.
Calvin Feltner, a former Madison County jail inmate, sued the county this summer in federal court, asking for damages from serious injuries he allegedly suffered during an August 2018 riot that he says was due to jail overcrowding.
At the time of the riot, where several inmates allegedly kidnapped, assaulted and sodomized other inmates, the 184-bed jail housed more than 400 people, with only five corrections officers on duty, according to Feltner’s lawsuit.
“Not only are they overcrowded in Madison County, they’re also underfunded and understaffed, so they don’t have enough guards on duty at any given time to keep things under control. That’s how this riot happened,” said William Butler, Feltner’s attorney.
“People were getting assaulted in front of (Feltner), nobody was doing anything, and he was telling them, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ And so they knocked all of his front teeth out,” Butler said.
The state of Kentucky is largely to blame for this mess. Forty-two percent of the 24,999 prisoners overloading jails on a recent day were state inmates serving felony time, not the local inmates for whom those jails were built to be short-term detention. Other than Louisiana, no other state in the nation houses so many of its inmates in county lockups.
Carter, the Rockcastle County jailer, said state inmates can live in his stifling dorms for several years. He shook his head in dismay.
“To me, a county jail is for a certain purpose,” he said. “It’s a local institution. You’re arrested, you’re put in here, hopefully you post bond. You get your court date. You do your local time here if you’re convicted and then you go home.”
“But that obviously isn’t how it’s really being used by the state. I can tell you, I don’t think that somebody should be sitting in here for three years.”
63 jailhouse deaths in three years
Sometimes inmates perish at the inundated Rockcastle County jail.
In 2016, a 50-year-old construction worker named Bobby Tackett hung himself by his shoelaces from a door hinge while alone in a spare room at the jail that was not meant to be used for housing.
Tackett, a Berea man who suffered from depression and took Prozac, asked officers if he would face any legal consequences for dying inside the jail. Jail staff later said in depositions that they assumed he wasn’t asking the question seriously.
Fearing violence in the chaotic dorms, Tackett then requested isolation. His concern didn’t seem irrational. Incident reports show that people get hurt badly enough at the jail to require hospital care, such as a prisoner in 2016 who was struck on his head by a corrections officer while lying on the floor. The officer, who alleged the prisoner used a racial slur, was fired for excessive use of force, according to a state report.
Jail staff obligingly left Tackett in the spare room. Two hours later, an officer delivering Tackett’s lunch tried to open the door and bumped into his dangling corpse.
Although there was a video camera inside the room, nobody watched Tackett on the monitor screens in the jail’s control center, according to the subsequent Kentucky State Police investigation and a lawsuit filed by Tackett’s family.
The jailer at the time, Carlos McClure, told investigators he walked past a screen showing the room’s interior and he noticed Tackett removing the chair that he would need to reach the door hinge from a stack of chairs.
“What the hell is he doing?” McClure asked one of his officers in the control center.
But McClure proceeded to get lunch. (Elected as jailer in 2014, his previous professional experience was working in the county roads department.) No one checked on Tackett to determine his plans for the chair, door hinge and shoelaces.
A penal expert who toured the jail at the request of Tackett’s family identified a series of staff errors and said he was shocked by the “claustrophobic” conditions. In general, state inspectors have cited the Rockcastle County jail for not having enough officers on duty to manage its swollen inmate population and for failing to conduct surveillance rounds as often as required.
“From my perspective, the Rockcastle jail is positioning itself for another significant event, such as a suicide, homicide and/or escape,” wrote Cameron Lindsay, a retired Federal Bureau of Prisons warden, in his report on Tackett’s death. “The facility is much too crowded, filthy, dingy, poorly lighted, unsanitary, understaffed and in a state of disrepair.”
Sixty-three people died in Kentucky jails from 2015 to 2017, according to the Office of the State Medical Examiner. Of those deaths — not all of which could be fully explained, officials said — 26 were identified as “complications of natural disease,” 19 were drug-related, three were the result of jailhouse violence and eight were suicides, according to state data.
Suicide is an ever-present threat in jail and a common source of litigation. Jailers say their county lockups are not only required to be miniature prisons housing state felons for years, they’re also forced to serve as psychiatric hospitals for the mentally disturbed in their communities — a role they are in no way prepared to play.
“It takes time and training to recognize when something ain’t right with someone, and if you’re checking every hour or so on 20 inmates crammed into a six-man cell, you’re not going to be able to see the signs,” said Greg Belzley, an inmate rights attorney in Prospect who frequently sues jails when things go wrong.
“I’ve had guards in depositions tell me, ‘I swear, I went in and carefully checked ‘em all to see if their chests were moving,’” Belzley said. “Well, bullshit, no, you didn’t. They’re often not able to check much further than whether or not someone is dangling by their neck. How could they do more? Some of these jails have only got one guy walking around looking at 160 different people in eight different areas. Nobody can do that and not miss something.”
‘Our training is crap’
At the Lincoln County jail, which on a recent day was packed to 182 percent of its capacity, Jailer Rob Wilson said his corrections officers struggle with mentally ill inmates bashing their heads against walls and picking off and eating their own flesh.
“My staff doesn’t have the training for this,” Wilson said. “Our training is crap. When someone is going through severe psychosis, we need to be able to send them somewhere, to someone who would know how to help them. But we’re always told, ‘There’s no beds, there’s no beds.’”
“Comp care will only talk to us on the phone,” Wilson added. “They won’t even come into the jail. It just aggravates me to death.”
In 2005, University of Kentucky criminal law professor Robert Lawson spent months touring Kentucky jails and prisons for a study he was writing about how the state Department of Corrections recklessly relies on county detention centers to hold its inmates.
Prisons have so many advantages over jails, Lawson said in a recent interview: Larger staffs, with better pay and training; an array of rehabilitation programs, such as addiction treatment, anger management, and college and vocational classes; and open spaces that allow inmates to circulate, like recreation yards, gymnasiums, dining halls, classrooms and libraries.
“It was like daylight and darkness, the differences between what I saw in the state prison system and the local jails,” Lawson said.
But more than anything, jails are poorly equipped to hold the mentally ill, Lawson said. They have neither the space nor the medical personnel, he said.
Lawson said he once visited an Eastern Kentucky county jail and peered through the meal-tray slot into a tiny cell where the jailer told him he stored “troubled” inmates. A pair of eyes stared back at him from out of the shadows.
“Sitting down on the floor looking up at me was a fairly young person who obviously looked disturbed,” Lawson said. “He was in an area that was maybe 10 feet long. It had a sink, a commode and a bed in it, and that was all it had. It had no light coming in from the outside.”
“I said (to the jailer), ‘Why do you have him in there? That looks like the worst place in the world you could put someone who was mentally impaired,’” Lawson said. “He told me, ‘No, the worst place I could put him is out here with all these other inmates.’”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story?
Like many people who call the Herald-Leader newsroom, this woman was angry. On this January day, her son was an inmate in the Madison County Detention Center and she feared for his life. The jail — built to hold 184 people — that week was dangerously overcrowded with 418 inmates, some of them state prisoners serving their time in the jail because there was no space for them in the state’s prisons. The cramped quarters led to violence, she said.
That sounded like a bad situation. And it proved to be true.
We’ve written about overcrowding in Kentucky’s county jails before, including an in-depth story in 2008 just as Steve Beshear began his two terms as governor.
“I’m not sure what to do,” Beshear admitted to us then. “Obviously, a great number of offenders who are in our jails and in our prisons right now are drug-related. We all know for a fact that if there is an answer to the drug problem, it’s treatment and rehabilitation. But that costs money. And right now, we don’t have any.”
Eleven years later, Kentucky’s county jails are in even worse shape. We hope this series of stories rekindles a discussion — and perhaps ignites a lawsuit — that forces Kentucky’s politicians to finally face the realities of the broken judicial system they’ve created.
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