LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A person housed at Louisville Metro Corrections died early Sunday morning, marking the sixth inmate to die inside the jail since November.
Louisville Metro Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham said an officer making security rounds found that Lesley Starnes, 36, was unresponsive.
Corrections medical staff attempted life-saving measures before Starnes was taken to University of Louisville Hospital.
Starnes was pronounced dead at the hospital around 1 a.m. Sunday morning. According to preliminary reports, the man died by suicide.
A report obtained by WDRB News about Sunday’s death written by an on-duty sergeant said an officer found Starnes with a sheet around his neck. Corrections officers tried to remove the sheet, but the blade used to cut the sheet from his neck was dull.
It took Correction officers at least two minutes to cut the sheet with the blade.
“It’s a rescue tool, it’s very similar to a seat belt cutter,” Daniel Johnson, Louisville Corrections FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) Lodge 77 President, said. “Those were placed in the control rooms on each floor about 15 years ago and they have not been maintained or touched or replaced ever since.”
At the time of his death, Starnes was being housed in a cell without lights that should not have been in use, according to officials.
During a news conference Sunday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said “one death is too many.”
Calling the recent death “frustrating” and “concerning,” Louisville Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark said Metro Corrections Professional Standards Unit has launched an internal investigation, which is standard procedure.
The six deaths are also being investigated by Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit, and one is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fischer said Sunday that he has asked LMPD to accelerate their investigations.
“Each of these cases are different,” Fischer said. “If it’s determined that there’s a pattern with these recent deaths, we are going to open further investigations.”
Four people housed at the jail in downtown Louisville died in 2021. In the previous 15 years, Louisville Metro Corrections averaged three inmate deaths per year.
There’s already been three deaths in 2022.
“I want to assure you that me and my staff are working hard each day examining our processes and seeing what we can do to improve on our processes,” Clark.
Half of the deaths in the past three months have been caused by suicide, according to Fischer.
“According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, jail deaths across the country increased 33% between 2001 and 2019, with suicide being a leading cause,” Fischer said.
Amber Duke, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Interim Executive Director, said it’s clear that meaningful steps toward change haven’t been taken.
Duke said investigations into the deaths need to be accelerated.
“No one should ever die in our jail,” Kungu Njuguna, ACLU Kentucky Policy Strategist, said. “This death is a testament to the complete and utter failure of our criminal legal system.
“Mr. Starnes should never have been held in custody. He was not a danger to his community. He just lacked the wealth necessary to purchase his freedom and his life.”
Starnes was arrested in Bullitt County and was booked into Metro Corrections on Jan. 26. He was scheduled to be transferred to Bullitt County on Friday, but that was canceled, Durham said.
“We’re working every day and calling to those other counties every day to get them to come get their inmates,” Durham said.
The jail’s inmate population has been reduced by around 215 people in the past five months.
Louisville Metro Corrections currently houses approximately 1,450 inmates. Some officials have called the staffing shortage “dire” at the facility, where 480 currently work, including 12 mental health professionals.
Clark said there are currently three vacancies for mental health professionals at the jail. Duke said additional health professionals who are experts in suicide prevention need to be brought to the jail immediately.
Maj. William Ashby was suspended from Louisville Metro Department of Corrections after sending unauthorized email to jail employees last year.
Ashby says a change in leadership at the jail should have happened long ago.
“He’s [Clark] a good guy, but he’s not the man for that position, he’s not a leader,” Ashby said. “He doesn’t know what’s going on in that jail. Commanders won’t come to him. They’re afraid if they do, there will be retaliation.”
Louisville Metro councilmembers share similar sentiments after the most recent jail death.
“I think it’s about leadership,” Metro Council President David James, a retired LMPD officer and former president of River City Fraternal Order of Police, said. “There’s some conversations about the lights not even working in the cell that this individual was in that died. How can you put someone in a cell at night when there’s no lighting?”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
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