Claustrophobic overcrowding. Violence. Scabies. Filth. Sweltering heat. Spoiled food. Inmates sleeping on concrete floors without so much as a mat for cushioning.
This is how Harold Edward Hill describes his 28 months inside the 184-bed Madison County Detention Center, which on some days has held more than 400 people.
“I was kicked in the head and struck with a fist causing two black eyes and a knot on my head,” Hill wrote in the jailhouse diary that he kept for much of his stay from late 2015 to early 2018. “Black mold covering the shower wall. Water leaking from under the wall causing inmates’ mattresses (on the floor) to get mold all over.”
Some of Hill’s harrowing observations — which he included in a lawsuit — are verified by reports filed by inspectors for the Kentucky Department of Corrections who visited the jail while he was there.
Inmate fighting, for example, sent men to the local hospital with serious injuries. An inmate who for nearly a year complained about chronic pain and medical neglect — Christopher Mudd, 40, of Shelbyville — passed blood, collapsed and died from complications of cirrhosis. Water leaked into cells from busted plumbing and outside rainfall. Dozens of inmates slept on bare concrete because there weren’t enough beds or even mats to equip rooms packed beyond twice their intended capacity.
A 160-square-foot detox cell was pressed into service as housing for a dozen men, inspectors noted, giving each inmate 13 square feet of living space. That’s a little less room than a coffin provides.
“Unfortunately, we are still overcrowded in all our cells,” the Madison County jail replied to state inspectors when a 2017 tour found a lengthy list of violations. “This is and has been an ongoing problem that we try to accommodate to the best of our ability.”
Hill, 62, a former Berea police officer with physical and emotional health problems, was arrested in 2015 after an armed standoff with law enforcement at his home in Madison County. No one was hurt during the encounter, but Hill was sentenced to serve 13 years for attempted murder of a police officer, wanton endangerment and other charges.
Hill was housed for a long stretch at the Madison County jail before being transferred in 2018 to a medium-security state prison, the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Lyon County, to complete his sentence. (Hill agreed to be interviewed for this story in July, but prison officials canceled the interview the next day after he was placed in restricted housing for an alleged disciplinary violation.)
Last year, after settling in at prison, Hill sued Madison County, its jail and several employees, including Doug Thomas. Thomas was the county’s elected jailer until he lost re-election in November to Steve Tussey, a retired federal prison warden who pledged to enact reforms at the detention center. Among other changes, Tussey is trying to cap the jail’s population at 380, although that requires sending some inmates to other county lockups.
In his suit in U.S. District Court in Lexington, Hill said the jail’s brutal conditions caused him to suffer cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his civil rights.
For up to 45 days after his arrest in October 2015, Hill said, he was given only a smock and a blanket to create a makeshift nest on the floor among the other inmates’ feet. Hill said he has metal rods in his back from past injuries, which made the pain so excruciating from sleeping on the floor that he soon had difficulty rising.
A scabies infestation on his arms and legs caused sores and itching for months. The jail has dealt with scabies outbreaks previously.
On several occasions, Hill said, he was locked in cells with men he had arrested as a police officer or whose relatives he had arrested, leading to confrontations. “I feel my safety was not even considered,” Hill wrote. One guard’s response was that “I had no rights, and if I didn’t like it not to come to jail. He said he didn’t have anywhere else to put them,” he said.
Prisoners brawled “because of severe overcrowding and (being) locked down 24/7 with very little to no rec,” Hill wrote.
Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood dismissed Madison County and the jail as defendants but let the suit proceed against Thomas and the other jail employees. The defendants claimed sovereign immunity, saying they performed their duties in good faith and can’t be held liable, and they said Hill did not produce evidence of any constitutional violations of his rights. The case is pending.
To support his suit, Hill submitted a handwritten diary of his time in the jail. He focused in particular on 2017, when he lived on the jail’s lower level in Dorm 23, a 313-square-foot room with seven beds.
A sampling of his entries:
- On April 18, 2017, a 65-year-old inmate, confused and disoriented, was placed in Hill’s cell wearing a soiled adult diaper that he had worn for days. When other inmates asked corrections officers to help the older man, the officers said there was nothing they could do.
- On May 10, 2017: “Cell got another person should have been in medical. Dope sick. Subject was defecating on self, couldn’t eat, etc. This has been a common occurrence. This jail puts people coming off dope who get sick in the cells so the inmates have to take care of and watch them.”
- On May 12, 2017, there were 16 inmates in Hill’s seven-bed cell. Soon the cell ran out of toilet paper, Hill said, forcing the men to hold their bowel movements for as long as possible until corrections officers slowly provided replacements one roll at a time.
- On May 26, 2017: “Inmates attacked an inmate who was just placed in the cell, knocking him to the ground and causing him to bleed. The inmates were placed in ‘the hole.’”
- On June 20, 2017: “18 or 19 people in seven-man cell. 11 or 12 people sleeping on the floor. This is causing great mental and physical stress. I am having great difficulty keeping my composure due to the overcrowding. It is very hot in here. The air conditioning does not seem to be working. Due to my asthma, I am having trouble breathing.”
- On June 22, 2017: “Served rotten chili for supper. After inmates ate most of it, the guards told us not to eat it because it was bad! They then brought in chicken sandwiches in Styrofoam containers.”
- On July 10, 2017, Hill said he got hurt trying to stop an attack on an inmate who was lying on a bunk. He ended up with two black eyes, a knot on his head and injured ribs. Hill said one of the men who pounded on him was a violent robbery suspect, and as a police officer, he had had to use force to arrest the man’s father and grandfather. Now this man was his roommate.
- On July 23, 2017: “Advising medical that I was suffering emotional breakdown and needed help.”
There were no “extraordinary occurrence reports” detailing assaults on Hill at the jail during 2017 among the documents provided to the Herald-Leader under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
However, at least four other Madison County inmates were taken to the hospital that year for broken bones, burns or other serious injuries after they were assaulted at the jail, according to the reports. A fifth inmate was hospitalized after a heroin overdose in her cell, with the drug and a syringe found nearby, according to the reports.
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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