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LMDC reported nearly three times more deaths than nearby jails in same time frame

A closer look into what happened paints a picture of how little urgency there was to get to the bottom of the drug problem at LMDC.
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 7:24 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Months before eight other inmates at Louisville’s jail would die, there was David Dahms.

The 37-year-old died on May 16, 2021. His death would be the first in a rash of others at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections.

The coroner ruled Dahms’ death an accidental overdose.

“I think it would be fair to say that he consumed drugs at LMDC,” LMDC’s current director Dwayne Clark said during a sworn deposition in Dahms’ civil case obtained by WAVE News Troubleshooters.

Clark’s last days serving as director are expected to be during the first week of April.

Despite multiple deaths, lawsuits and votes of no confidence, Clark was kept on the job by Mayor Greg Fischer, who supported him during press conferences. Clark was allowed to retire from his position, along with other members of his command staff.

A closer look into what happened after his death paints a picture, Dahms’ attorney said, of how little urgency there was to get to the bottom of the drug problem at LMDC.

Three other people would die of overdoses at the jail in the months after Dahms. More than 10 others would come close to overdosing, if it weren’t for the quick work of corrections officers saving their lives.

According to records, the LMDC’s Professional Standards Unit, or PSU’s, internal investigation wasn’t opened until four months after Dahms’ death. That was even after LMPD’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates criminality by city employees, finished and closed their case on Dahms’ death. In those files, they even recommended the jail investigate how he’d obtained drugs.

That PSU investigation would not be opened until September 9, according to the documents, after an email by a reporter asked why no such case existed.

The email included members of Fischer’s staff. Subsequent emails showed Fischer’s spokesperson asking Clark how they were going to respond. Clark replied that he believed an internal investigation had been opened. He was wrong.

“I would probably say that this email caused me to check to make sure that there was an investigation,” Clark said during the deposition. “And... that’s what I believe.”

Clark told Dahms’ attorney, Trenton Burns, it was their PSU team that conducts those investigations. However, according to LMDC’s policy, Clark himself would have needed to authorize its initiation.

By the time PSU did open the case, some of the surveillance video of Dhams at the facility was already gone.

“I guess it’s job security for me, because we’re going to get answers,” Burns told WAVE News. “We’re not going to stop.”

Burns represents the Dahms family and those of Adam Starnes and Stephanie Dunbar, who died by suicide, records show.

According to sources, Dunbar had been held in a room, by herself, for more than 12 hours.

“There’s something going on if it’s pushing these people to it,” Javon Dunbar said. “If it is suicide.”

Stephanie Dunbar was Javon’s mother. He questions the suicide.

“It can’t be true,” Dunbar remembered thinking after getting a call from his brother about their mother’s death.

“She was a strong person, strong woman,” Dunbar said. “She was loving, nice, give to anybody.”

Stephanie Dunbar is one of eight LMDC inmates who have died in the last six months in the care of LMDC since November 2021 through the end of March 2022.

Jail deaths have been on the rise in recent years according to the Bureau of Justice. However, their most recent statistics are from 2019.

According to numbers obtained from jails in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville and Lexington, since November 1, they have all seen three or fewer deaths compared to LMDC’s eight during the same time period.

All but Cincinnati and Lexington’s inmate populations are larger.

“It’s a systematic failure at this point,” Burns said.

The jail’s leaders have blamed COVID, drugs and people coming to them in poor health as reasons for the high number of deaths.

Out of the eight deaths at LMDC since November, three were from suspected overdose, three from suicide and two from health issues.

The corrections FOP leadership has been vocal about their worries for the inmates and the dwindling number of officers, saying it all boils down to poor leadership.

“I really feel like the corrections officers are being set up to fail,” Burns said.

One problem the Department of Corrections found in Dahms’ case was more specific.

In a letter from August 2021, they found LMDC wasn’t checking on inmates according to law.

The department was given 15 days to submit a corrective action plan.

“Was that done in this case?” Burns asked Clark during a deposition in Dahms’ civil case.

“No,” Clark replied.

“OK. Why not?” Burns asked.

“I mistakenly overlooked the email,” Clark responded. “I was out of the office when I received it.”

That mistake was caught just in time to submit the report on the same day Clark was to be questioned in this deposition in February 2022.

The answers obtained so far are not enough for the families of those who died or for Burns.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, then send over the video, show everything,” Burns said. “If you have training for these officers, show us. If the jail is appropriately staffed in your estimation, show us the numbers. You’re not going to be able to, I know what’s going on over there.”

Clark’s last days at LMDC are expected to be next week.

A new director, Jerry Collins, will then officially step in.

The jail’s assistant director, Steve Durham, agreed to interviews about the most recent death with other media this week. He did not respond to the request for an interview for this story until minutes before it aired.

“These in-custody deaths are terrible,” Durham said.

He added that they cannot comment on pending investigations.

Durham listed a number of changes over the past 100 days he said Clark had taken including working with LMDC’s mental health provider, Wellpath, to review their suicide risk assessment tools, their practice of making one-on-one reviews with inmates that are housed in single cells and increasing their contact with individuals that have been in custody for less than 10 days. 

He also said they are addressing inmates housed in single cell housing with the goal of moving them to general population.

Other changes include a review by retired Idaho Sheriff Gary Raney, a national expert in jail deaths, of the recent suicide cases, their policies and procedures regarding suicide, the jail facility, and how inmates housed are observed.

“It is critical to know that practice is conforming to policy,” Durham wrote. “Another important assessment will be the communication between correctional and healthcare staff.”

“In light of the drug overdose this week at Corrections, LMDC is introducing enhanced security measures to further fight the illicit drugs that are coming into the jail,” he wrote. “Each day, dozens of attempts are made to get drugs into custody via the mail, secreted in body cavities and through other sources that are under investigation. LMDC Majors are coordinating a schedule for frequent use of available K-9 drug detection resources to be deployed at LMDC, and LMDC is currently in the process of securing its own dogs and training handlers. While it is not possible to intercede and prevent all of these criminal actions, many of these attempts are foiled by hard-working corrections officers and staff.”

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