LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Changes have arrived at Louisville's Metro Corrections in the last several months and more will come in 2013 after the jail saw an unprecedented increase in deaths there. Seven inmates died while in custody in just seven months last year.
WHAS11 first broke the story last fall and our I-Team investigation continues as families of two of those deceased inmates--Savannah Sparks, who died in April, and Kenneth Cross, who died in August--have hired attorneys. Sparks' family attorney, Seth Gladstein, said they have not filed a lawsuit but are considering one.
Sparks' grandmother, Karen May, spoke exclusively to WHAS11's Bryan Baker about trying to find the answers surrounding her granddaughter's death, five days after she was arrested for shoplifting. Sparks was a 27-year-old mother of three boys and was addicted to heroin. May hoped the April arrest would help turn Sparks' life around.
"She was going to check into the hospital again, and so when she called me and she said that she had been arrested, I thought, well, this will help her," May cried. "She'll be ok. (Five) days later they called me that she was dead, and they couldn't give me any answers."
In Sparks' case -- jail leaders told us it began with a "medical triggering event" in her cell. She died later at the hospital. The cause of death according to the death certificate WHAS11 obtained is "Complications of Chronic Substance Abuse with Withdrawal" even though she had been off the streets and supposed to be under supervision for almost a week.
The man tasked with overseeing everything that happens inside the walls at Metro Corrections is director Mark Bolton. The seven deaths are the most in one year since he took over late in 2008. In some of those deaths Bolton tells WHAS11 drugs are factor even though the jail has an extensive inmate detoxification program funded by your taxpayer dollars.
"How do people die in the jail if they are under detox?" asked WHAS11's Bryan Baker of Bolton.
"Bad things happen in jail, Bryan. We've got 2,000 inmates in here, most of whom don't take care of themselves," Bolton said. "Unfortunately we had some folks die in the hospital and there are folks that die in the jail. That's something that I don't like, that's something that we are trying to improve upon."
WHAS11 dug deeper and found that medical attention Sparks and other inmates need is provided not by Metro Corrections but by a contractor. Metro Louisville pays Corizon Correctional Healthcare $5.3 million dollars -- paid for by you, the taxpayer.
Corizon is a Tennessee company, providing health care to inmates in more than 400 jails in 31 states, according to its website. We also found multiple wrongful death lawsuits filed against Corizon in the past two years, including one after an inmate's death in the Lexington-Fayette County jail in 2012, according to court records and media reports.
Five Corizon employees resigned from their post at Louisville Metro Corrections from the top-down
including supervisors, an on-site jail administrator and nurses after, according to a Metro Corrections release, their actions "may have may have contributed" to the deaths of Sparks in April and Samantha George in August.
"There were some health care issues with these two inmates where there were some delays in being seen by the doctor, I think there were some delays in having some vital signs checked, and I think that these delays were more than what I would like to see regarding a reasonable level of healthcare in a corrections facility," Bolton said.
According to the jail's own policy obtained by WHAS11 through public court records, if there are signs of withdrawal the inmate is supposed to be examined and transferred to the jail's medical unit. Severe or life-threatening symptoms shall send the inmate to the hospital.
We asked director Bolton if those procedures were followed in the case of Savannah Sparks. He said he could not talk about open investigations but told us care for inmates is much more complicated.
"They may report it," Bolton said. "They may not. Many times we don't even know what kind of drugs they're on or what their detox issues are. We deal with those folks everyday. What we are doing -- we are upping the ante. We are increasing our knowledge base, our resource base, and we're trying to prevent similar issues from occurring at the rate that they have been."
After Bolton hired a consultant to review Metro Corrections Policy Corizon, a full-time detox nurse is on staff for the first time at the jail -- Bolton says at his request. He also wants a healthcare compliance monitor.
Corizon declined an interview and would not specifically address the inmate deaths but sent WHAS11 this statement:
"At Corizon we are committed to providing quality health care services and we welcome the opportunity to work with an independent contract monitor who will assist Louisville Metro Corrections and Corizon in our ongoing efforts to continuously improve the delivery of health care services to our patients."