‘A matter of life and death’: Whistleblowers urge closing of juvenile detention center in Lyndon

From riots, fights, assaults on staff and teens having sex, some are urging for the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center to be closed down.
Updated: Sep. 16, 2022 at 5:55 PM EDT
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LYNDON, Ky. (WAVE) - From riots, fights, assaults on staff and teens having sex, some are urging for the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center to be closed down.

“How would you describe how the youth are being housed right now?” WAVE News Troubleshooters asked Michael Ross, the center’s former supervisor.

“Like animals,” Ross replied. “And that’s what’s setting them off.”

On August 27, WAVE News was on scene after reports of juvenile inmates breaking through the doors of their dorms, breaking windows to try to escape and setting fired.

One teen did escape the facility, which is surrounded by a residential area. He was later located by police.

“No one at this point is in control,” the dispatcher warned the responding officers and firefighters. “They’re trying to break the windows.”

There have been at least two other incidents in the last few weeks of the juvenile inmates taking over the facility and the control room.

Police have had to be called to regain control.

Louisville Metro closed the downtown Jefferson County Youth Detention Center, or JCYC, in January 2020 due to a budget cut.

Since then in Jefferson County, most teens arrested for crimes are being cited and released back to their parents, according to local law enforcement.

Teenagers who are taken to a detention center are mostly accused of violent crimes including murder, assault and rape.

Once JCYC closed, the state took over and began using a facility on La Grange Road. The building was not designed as a detention center, Ross said, contributing to the problems.

On paper, it was sold as a 16-bed facility for a temporary stay.

“It was just going to be a spot just for the juveniles that just got arrested to be there for a few days, till they go to court,” Ross said. “And, it changed.”

“How dangerous do you think that situation is?” Ross was asked.

“Very dangerous,” Ross responded.

Ross quit last year because of the conditions, he said. He described staff being assaulted and ending up with fractured ribs to teens constantly kicking the doors to their dorms open and running amok.

“I didn’t feel safe going down there, because I didn’t even, at the time, have any detention experience,” Ross said.

Ross isn’t the only one with serious concerns.

WAVE News Troubleshooters spoke to more than six people who have had recent, first-hand experience at the troubled facility.

All of the people Troubleshooters spoke to had similar accounts and described similar problems.

Only two unnamed people who interviewed with WAVE knew who else had shared information.

They agreed to go on camera as long as WAVE News did not reveal their identities. For the purpose of this article, their names have been changed.

“Are you scared?” Witness One was asked.

“Very scared,” they replied. “Either you fight for your life, or the kid is just going to beat you up.”

Both witnesses told WAVE News the facility has consistently broken the federally-mandated staff-to-youth ratio of 8 to 1.

Sometimes, they said, there are only two people working for the overcrowded facility, which in the past, has reached up to nearly double the number of inmates they’re meant to house.

“Some of us have been in there working 20, 24 to 30 hours in one shift,” Witness Two said. “Which makes it even more dangerous.”

The lack of staff has led up to teens taking the facility over, like on July 31.

According to sources, several teens had broken out of their dorms and tried to gain access to another teen. The staff present at the time had to call police for help.

In a statement from Morgan Hall, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Justice Cabinet, he denied that incident was a riot and referred to it as a “situation” instead.

“They have a long time ago removed the word riot,” Witness Two said. “So now it’s just called either a disturbance or a destruction of state property.”

“It is very much so a riot,” Witness Two added.

“Why do you think they are making that distinction?” Witness Two was asked.

“They don’t want to take accountability for what’s happening,” they responded.

The conditions are not just bad for the staff, but for the detained teens themselves, both interviewees said.

Ross described dorms with no bathrooms, a co-ed unit where teens have been caught having sex, fights among rival gang members, JCPS teaching by slipping worksheets under the doors, teens not getting to go outside and not getting showers.

Those problems, he said, are because of how the facility is built and the lack of staff.

He said the teens have rioted before because they weren’t getting showers.

“Yeah, they’d leave them locked in, in the rooms because they don’t have the staff,” Ross said.

The two interviewees relayed the same information.

“If you take the kids out of their rooms to get a shower, then they refuse to go back up and they want to fight the staff, then it turns into the kids have took over,” Witness One said. “So sometimes they don’t get showers, sometimes they don’t get their phone calls to contact their family. Their families will call and say ‘I have not heard from my child for a couple of days, is he OK, is she OK?’ Now what they tell them, I have no idea.”

Especially, they said, since some incidents are not being documented.

“Nope, no record, it didn’t exist,” Witness One said.

Ross said the administrators at the Department of Juvenile Justice have known about the issues since day. He added they were already short staffed when they first opened as a detention center.

“There was a lot of stuff going on that I spoke up about, that they didn’t want out,” Ross said. “So they moved my shift.”

Ross showed us documents where he described many of the issues since January 2020 on two separate grievances, and then again on his exit interview letter.

He says the DJJ’s Deputy Commissioner, George Scott, has turned a blind eye to the problems.

“I think Mr. Scott should be held accountable for everything that’s going on there,” Ross said.

WAVE News asked to interview Scott or the commissioner days in advance of this report, but was declined.

“DJJ staff is not available for an interview at this time,” Hall wrote as part of a statement in response to the request.

“I would respectfully ask for an interview with the command at DJJ, not a statement,”

WAVE News Troubleshooters replied in an email:

“If it is a matter of scheduling, we can accommodate whatever day and time that works best for them.

There are very serious concerns being raised and which we are going to talk about in the story on Friday. They include individual incidents not being reported, documentation of issues being brought up since 2020 without any changes, staff being assaulted, youth consistently breaking down doors, rioting, youth not getting showers, youth having sex while housed in co-ed circumstances and staff working more than 20 hours a shift, to name a few.

I think the public would appreciate those in charge of the detention center talking about these issues, aside from a statement.”

Hall provided a response hours before the report aired.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has taken steps to address these issues. DJJ’s top priority is the wellbeing of youth in its custody and every decision will be made with that in mind.

DJJ faces particularly difficult challenges operating JRJDC in the current environment, primarily related to staffing shortages. We are taking steps to address the issues which include significantly reducing the population in the facility as we continue in our efforts to recruit additional staff.”

In another provided statement, Hall acknowledged a 65% staff vacancy rate for the facility that has a total of 40 full and part-time positions. She said that the DJJ continues to face barrier in recruitment and retention.

“The recently enacted state budget included a historic 8% raise for all state employees and a potential for another raise next fiscal year pending approval by the general assembly,” he said. “Additionally, in December of 2021, Gov. Beshear approved for a 10% raise for certain DJJ security staff positions.”

The damage to the facility during the previous incidents had been repaired, according to Hall.

As of September 15, the center reduced the number of inmates to 17.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) remains committed to public safety and the well-being of youth in its custody,” Hall continued.

Ross believes keeping any teens detained in a facility not designed for the job is a problem.

“I think that facility needs to be closed,” Ross said.

“I hope until we can get enough staff, that, we just shut it down,” Witness One said. “It’s becoming a matter of life and death.”

“Somebody may die,” Witness Two added. “It may be a youth, it may be a staff, but somebody may die and that’s something we don’t to see happen.”

The closest other juvenile detention facility is in Adair County.