Louisvillians are dying under house arrest
Jackie Wulf says her son, Jason Wulf, used to call her pretty much every day.
That is, unless he was using methamphetamine.
So when Jason was held in the Louisville jail this past winter awaiting a court date, his mother suspected something was wrong after the calls became more infrequent.
When they did speak, Jackie asked if he was still participating in the jail’s recovery program.
“He’d say, ‘No mom, there’s more drugs in here than there is out there,’” she said.
She remembers Jason as a social teenager and a caring son who grew to be a loving father of two boys but always seemed to get caught up with the wrong people.
The family was trying to get Jason the help he needed. He was waiting for the jail to send him to a treatment center for an assessment, but the process was slow, and Jackie believes her son started using again while inside the jail.
Jason Wulf accepted a plea deal on charges of assault and illegal possession of a firearm. He was released from jail in late February and sentenced to home incarceration, also known as electronic monitoring or house arrest, while waiting for a scheduled hip surgery ahead of his prison sentence later this month.
Home incarceration meant Wulf wore an ankle bracelet that tracked his every move and sent alerts to the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections if he strayed from approved routes or lingered outside.
It meant Wulf couldn’t visit his family home in Fairdale, where he grew up, explored the surrounding forests and made crafts out of wood and resin in the garage.
Instead, the terms of home incarceration bound Wulf to the Fern Creek apartment where, a little over a month prior, he overdosed on fentanyl-laced methamphetamine.
“They say, ‘Here’s your rules. This is what you can and cannot do,’ Jackie Wulf said. “Then they let him go right back there where he overdosed. They let him go right back in that situation.”
Wulf suffered another overdose on April 2, shortly after returning to the apartment. This one was fatal. He was 41.
Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Charles Cunningham Jr., who presided over Wulf’s case, declined to answer questions for this story.
Deaths of people in home incarceration seldom receive public attention but have been common in Louisville for years. Forty-six people on home incarceration have died since 2017 in Louisville, including seven in 2022 alone, according to data KyCIR requested from Metro Corrections. Investigations into four of those deaths are pending. But medical examiners determined that 28 people died from overdoses, while three were victims of homicide and one died by suicide. The rest died of natural causes.
Eight people died inside the Louisville jail between November 2021 and March of this year, prompting an administration change and policy reviews. People under home incarceration have died at rates of nearly one every six weeks over the past five years, but judges are assigning people home incarceration more than ever. The deaths of people on home incarceration haven’t prompted the same scrutiny; the program is seen as a positive tool to keep people out of jail.
Marcus Jackson, an ACLU of Kentucky organizer who works on incarceration and sentencing reform, said home incarceration creates a minefield of potential violations that could send an incarcerated person back to jail.
Jackson spent time in a state prison as a young man when he was convicted of injuring someone in a shooting, though Jackson says he wasn't involved in the shooting and witnesses later came forward to confirm his innocence. He applied for home incarceration back then, but the state denied his request because he was serving time for a violent offense.
Now, as an organizer, Jackson sees home incarceration as an alternative not that different from time in jail or prison. Both options overlook more effective alternatives to incarceration for people wrestling with addiction, such as substance abuse treatment or therapy.
“There's no evidence of rehabilitation associated with home incarceration, or incarceration in any form,” Jackson said, adding that this is a missed opportunity to reach people when they may be more open to help.
Home Incarceration at LMPD
Authorities first started using home incarceration on a large scale in the 1970s, and its prevalence has grown as surveillance technology has advanced. The advocacy group MediaJustice estimates that the use of electronic monitoring has grown by 140% in the past decade.
Metro Corrections Major Darrell Goodlett said there’s no record of exactly how many people were put on home incarceration in recent years, but that officers supervise around 700 people in the program daily. That’s up from an average of 571 people in 2021, according to a fact sheet prepared annually by the jail.
That number includes people sentenced to home incarceration and defendants in criminal cases awaiting trial.
Home incarceration also comes at a price. Participants pay the jail $10 at enrollment, then $6 a week for supervision, but Goodlett said these fees aren’t enforced and are adjusted depending on income.
People in jail have a constitutionally protected right to adequate care, although correctional facilities often fail to fulfill those responsibilities. Those incarcerated at home, however, are on their own. In fact, they must sign a document that says that they are “wholly responsible for their own well-being.”
Goodlett said five officers are assigned to home incarceration during the day shift, and their role is limited.
“Our responsibility is to monitor that the person is where they're supposed to be, and not where they're not supposed to be," Goodlett said.
The terms of Louisville’s home incarceration program outline 20 conditions. Incarcerated people are supposed to remain inside their approved residence at all times, except for corrections-approved trips for things like doctor’s appointments or to and from work.
“Inside means no decks, patios, porches, taking out the trash, etc.,” according to the jail’s terms, which don’t mention rules regarding visitors.
Signals from the GPS monitor can be used as evidence of a violation and could send an incarcerated person back to jail. Tampering with the monitoring device is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Goodlett said the only requirement for a suitable dwelling for home incarceration is a working landline or cell phone, so the incarcerated person can contact officers at the jail.
One of the home incarceration deaths included in jail records was that of a man confined to a home with no electricity or heat that investigators said he was “rehabbing.” The man was found dead on a mattress on the living room floor after an apparent overdose in December.
James Kilgore was on home incarceration for a year after his release from prison in 2009. Kilgore, a researcher and advocate who has chronicled home incarceration’s growth in recent years, said unsuitable living environments are part of the problem with home incarceration.
“There's this assumption that the courts make sure that home is a safe place. That home is somehow going to protect you from all the issues that have landed you in jail,” Kilgore said. “But in fact, for many people home may be the worst place to be. That may be where the root of all their problems is located.”
"A Middle Ground"
Jefferson County District Court Judge Julie Kaelin said judges weigh many factors while deciding if home incarceration is right for someone who shows up in court.
“You're thinking about, what does the person's history show me? And what does their current life situation show me?” Kaelin said. “Are they working? Who do they live with? Do they have a stable place to live? Do they have someone willing to say I will make sure they get back to court?”
Kaelin said that home incarceration is increasingly seen as a positive alternative to putting more in the overcrowded jail. Kaelin remembers a time during her stint as a public defender from 2006 to 2010 when the county regularly ran out of GPS monitors, forcing people who were eligible for electronic monitoring to wait in jail until more devices were available.
“I think that there was a big push to get more because [home incarceration] is seen sort of like a safe haven for when (judges) are not really sure what to do,” Kaelin said.
Kaelin said judges see home incarceration as a middle ground for when they don’t want people to sit in jail, but the person can’t make bail, or the judges suspect the individual won’t come back to court.
Supporters of home incarceration usually assume that if a GPS-monitored individual wasn’t on home incarceration, they’d be in jail. But that’s not always true.
Because it's seen as a less invasive form of incarceration, Kaelin said that since at least 2020, judges may be putting some people on home incarceration who would otherwise be released without any supervision or jail time.
Although it is often praised as a step towards keeping people out of jail, Weisburd said home incarceration actually expands the footprint of correctional facilities out into the community, said Kate Weisburd, an associate professor at the George Washington University Law School who has studied home incarceration policies.
After reviewing the records from the Louisville jail, Weisburd said the practice appears to be “replicating prison” by placing onerous restrictions on people’s freedom.
“Maybe being on an electronic monitor is not as physically and mentally abusive as being in a jail cell," Weisburd said. "But the fact that so many people are dying while they're on a monitor is a huge red flag that we're getting this very, very wrong.”
In St. Francisville, Louisiana, a grand jury recently brought negligent homicide charges against an ankle device company called American Electronic Monitoring and two of its employees when a man under their supervision murdered his estranged wife.
Sam D’Aquilla, the district attorney for the parish where St. Francisville is located, said the GPS signal on the man’s ankle alerted the company of several violations, including instances when the man drove past the victim’s house despite a restraining order, but the company never notified authorities.
Lawyers have made similar arguments in civil cases in New York against GPS-provider Behavioral Interventions.
SCRAM Systems, the Colorado-based vendor that provides monitoring devices to Louisville, doesn’t directly supervise the people wearing its devices; A spokesperson for the company said jail employees are responsible for the monitoring, and referred questions to the Louisville Department of Corrections.
Goodlett said officers conduct searches and follow up on tips to determine if someone is violating their terms by using drugs or possessing firearms. Still, only five officers are assigned to home incarceration during the day shift, and they are stretched thin.
“We would love to be able to get into those homes and look around more often. It's just really difficult to do that,” Goodlette said. “But we do catch those things.”
Home Incarceration And Treatment
Jeffrey Hudson, 37, believes home incarceration is the best option for him. He’s been incarcerated since February in a house maintained by the Grace and Peace Behavioral Health substance abuse treatment program and is facing charges including burglary and fourth degree assault that Hudson says were driven by his addictions. He can travel to and from program activities during the daytime but otherwise has to have trips cleared by a home incarceration officer a week in advance.
Home incarceration means Hudson misses the little things that would make his newfound sobriety all the more sweet, like seeing his son off to prom, visiting his mom on Mother's Day, and watching the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks with his family.
"That's one of the barriers of [home incarceration], it's really strict,” Hudson said.
Hudson’s looking forward to July, when the court could decide to remove the ankle bracelet and end his home incarceration.
“It's just gonna just take the weight off,” Hudson said. “Other than that, I get to move around freely and go away and be able to live life.”
Still, when coupled with the treatment program, Hudson said he's happy just to spend another day out of jail.
“This life here, the worst day is way better than my best day when I was getting high,” Hudson said.
But Hudson’s situation is rare. Judge Kaelin said she and other judges sentence people to home incarceration coupled with a treatment plan as part of a “last-ditch effort,” when the individual has run out of options.
People on home incarceration can pursue treatment on their own, but Kaelin said there aren’t enough resources available for everyone who needs help. Kaelin also said some services may require approval from an insurance company or may be provided by a religious institution with rules people in need of treatment can’t follow, so the pool of resources is further diminished.
“It's very easy, I think, for people to say, well, if they really wanted help, they would just go get treatment,” Kaelin said. “And in reality, we are nowhere near having the type of availability that would allow someone who wants treatment to just walk in and get it anytime any day.”
Goodlett said that people on home incarceration are struggling with the same drug crisis that has caused overdose deaths in Louisville to nearly triple since 2015. He said Metro Corrections provides overdose prevention kits including Narcan to newly released people who need treatment or face drug-related charges, and social workers in the jail can help people find a community treatment center.
Kathy Turner, communications director for the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said the city is considering extending an opioid addiction treatment program currently offered at the jail to people on home incarceration.
“We want to better understand the barriers to access for individuals, research any best practices that may already be in place across the country that could be replicated, engage with the judicial and legal systems and any other agencies or community partners to understand any barriers to implementation of the service,” Turner said in an email. Turner said that research and expansion requires approval from federal and state regulators and could take another 12 to 16 months to get off the ground.
Ultimately, Jackie Wulf believes her family made the right call pushing for home incarceration for her son Jason, but the decision has troubled her since Jason’s fatal overdose.
She wanted him out of jail, but she never felt comfortable with Jason at the apartment where he had previously struggled with the addiction that eventually killed him.
Wulf said that neither jail nor home incarceration was the solution her son needed.
“Home incarceration should be in a treatment center,” she said. “Not where you allow anybody to walk through the door and bring anything they want in.”
Contact reporter Jared Bennett at email@example.com