New lawsuit describes conditions at youth detention center as inhumane, borderline sadistic

A damning lawsuit has been filed in federal court based on numerous allegations against Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 7:29 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - A damning lawsuit has been filed in court based on numerous allegations against Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

It was filed on behalf of two former employees at the youth detention facility in Adair County.

In the documents they describe conditions and specific incidents as “borderline sadistic” and “inhumane.” They added that it was a “dangerous treatment of youth.”

The documents include a social media post meant to show the culture at the Adair facility. The post makes fun of a teenage girl’s smell, the lawsuit says, after not being allowed to shower for 11 days, kept in isolation for more than 20 days.

Those were circumstances acknowledged by superiors in a series of emails also included in the case. The correspondence warned of things to come, like youth breaking down physically and mentally, violence and more staff leaving.

One employee stated she was filing a grievance with the department’s commissioner, Vikki Reed, who has come under recent fire.

“Do you think the criticisms are fair or not fair when people say, she should no longer be the director?” Reed was asked.

“You know, I’m passionate about the job that I do,” Reed replied. “I feel like I’m very qualified for it. I have the educational background, I have the experience, and I feel like we’ve done everything with professionalism.”

“I’m doing the right thing even though sometimes that is hard, the challenges and I feel like we are stepping up to meet them and honestly I don’t think anybody could have done a better job than I have,” she continued.

Reed was interviewed along with her boss, Kerry Harvey, the Secretary for the Justice Cabinet which includes the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The interview was conducted Monday, before the lawsuit was filed. It was the first interview they agreed to since news started breaking about the conditions.

As of the airing of this story the Cabinet had not had a chance to review the lawsuit which contained much of the same information alleged in a series of Troubleshooter Investigations.

It describes youth being locked down for 24 hours a day, not being fed, and kept in “unsanitary and barely livable” conditions.

“This combined with staff who cared only about compliance to form a toxic cocktail where violence was not only predictable, but inevitable,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit describes the treatment of one unnamed youth whose arms were allegedly twisted back into her cell through the door’s flap as she screamed in pain. One of the nurses present, who is one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit was concerned the teen may have endured broken bones. The nurse claims she asked to examine the teen and get her X-rays, but was prevented from doing wither.

The incident came after the teen had been left in isolation for more than 20 hours, had not been allowed to use the bathroom, was having a severe mental health breakdown, and was soiled after not being allowed to shower for days, and not provided feminine hygiene products according to email threads among staff also included in the lawsuit. The teen did not receive medical treatment until another three weeks, the lawsuit states. In the meantime, the nurse described the teen suffering through a severe mental health breakdown, believing someone was in her cell and going to do “bad” things to her.

“This is neglect and abuse,” the head nurse wrote. “I am not going to go back and forth as to why she needs a shower.”

“I never thought I would see the day when our dept would allow this,” the head nurse wrote.

The emails are just some of the instances in which the plaintiffs say they reported to their supervisors.

One of the plaintiffs then described seeing the incident report involving the girl’s arm being twisted. That report she said, was a “total work of fiction.”

“Short staffing does not excuse abuse,” the head nurse wrote. She wrote about a grievance she was preparing for Reed directly.

Harvey was asked about any concerns over the actions of his staff members during the several other violent and problematic incidents previously reported.

“Of course I’m reviewing everything that we’re doing,” he said.

When asked if those reviews include investigating allegations that some supervisors were falsifying official records, like incident reports, signatures, narratives and dates.

“If I’m made aware that that actually happened, of course I would have significant concerns and we have a disciplinary process,” Harvey said.

In the interview conducted prior to the lawsuit being filed, Harvey explained there are a number of problems that have led to the violent conditions, like teens acting out more violently than in the past and accused of more serious crimes like murder. He also spoke of a previously low pay scale that restricted staff levels and the kinds of candidates being hired.

“This system was established 20 years ago at a different time and under different circumstances, and the world has changed a whole lot in 20 years,” Harvey said. “But the detention system in Kentucky has changed very little.”

“As time went on and these changes occurred, and they were not addressed in Kentucky, these problems developed and the department needed to be able to evolve to adequately address these problems and that’s what we’re doing,” Harvey continued.

Harvey applauded the recent changes implemented by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear which includes the separation of teens by sex and level of offense, providing pepper spray and tasers to staff and increase the youth worker starting pay to $50,000.

“The Governor has addressed that and we’re starting to see improvements in staffing levels and interest in these jobs,” Harvey said.

He stated they are conducting site visits to the facilities for physical improvements since many of them are 20 years or older.

“We have already done a lot and have a lot planned for the future,” Harvey said.

Now that the teens are separated by sex and level of offense, Reed said they will be able to provide specific care.

“We’re going to be able to do some more specific programing for the long term kids,” she said. “Trauma informed care for all of our kids but especially for girls. Some gender specific information.” Reed said they are already working with providers.

Harvey said some of the changes recently implemented are things that have been discussed prior to the violence becoming public.

“I think the folks at the department are always looking for better programming and better treatment options in both the detention facilities and residential facilities.”

He stated the addition pf pepper spray and tasers for workers to have available is something new.

“I don’t think that had been under serious discussion until these problems began to occur and this is a response to what we’ve seen.” He continued, “Having safe and secure facilities is the starting point for every other good things you want to happen with these juveniles.”

Reed said the problems really started after teens at the fall of COVID.

“One of the things that happened was that the numbers went up. As school returned and courts returned we saw an exponential rise in youth in our custody without the increased number of staff to go along with it,” Reed said. She added that the court assign teens to the system, and they can’t turn them away.

There are a number of investigations into the centers by state, federal and legislative branches.

On Thursday, the Department of Juvenile Justice Workgroup leadership will hold a press conference to provide an update on the workgroup’s progress and discuss problems uncovered within DJJ, the Senate majority Caucus announced Wednesday.

“I’m confident that the plan the governor announced and that we’re implementing will make the necessary improvements,” Harvey said.