Politics & Government

Kentucky overuses isolation cells for youths even after girl’s death, report says

Kentucky's use of isolation cells disturbs state official

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said the state's juvenile detention centers are using isolation cells less than they once did. But he was disturbed by a recent report that found the state still overuses the small, concrete
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Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said the state's juvenile detention centers are using isolation cells less than they once did. But he was disturbed by a recent report that found the state still overuses the small, concrete

Nearly two years after a 16-year-old girl died alone and unnoticed in an isolation cell, state officials acknowledge that the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice still has serious problems to correct at its seven detention centers.

“We want every young person that is with us to be treated effectively, to be treated humanely, to be well taken care of and to not be abused,” Juvenile Justice Commissioner Carey Cockerell said in a recent interview. “And we’ve got some changes to make when it comes to policy, and we’ve got some changes to make when it comes to practice.”

In a sharply critical inspection report given to the department Oct. 31, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy of Washington, D.C., cited a near-total absence of mental health care in the detention centers; chronic staff shortages and inadequate employee training; a lack of special education for youths with learning disabilities; and few opportunities for residents to file grievances that could reveal abuses.

The report saved its strongest criticism for the controversial practice known as “room confinement” — leaving youths with little supervision in small concrete isolation cells as punishment for misbehavior.

State officials are especially sensitive on this subject. In January 2016, Gynnya McMillen died from a heart condition while being ignored in room confinement at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County. Her death went undiscovered for more than 10 hours. An investigation showed that detention center staff falsified logs to make it appear they were checking on the girl’s safety throughout the night.

“By the time medical attention was called for Gynnya at 10 a.m. the next morning, Lincoln Village employees noted she refused breakfast, which employees then ate, poked her corpse with a water bottle and kicked her bed frame to shake her body, which was, by that time, in rigor mortis,” according to a wrongful death lawsuit subsequently filed by the McMillen family.

Room confinement remained a common practice this summer when the Center for Children’s Law and Policy sent teams to inspect juvenile detention centers in Fayette, Jefferson, Breathitt and McCracken counties, according to the report.

“Significant staffing shortages, coupled with a lack of mental health resources, have led to a significant over-use of room confinement in two of the facilities we visited,” the teams wrote in their report.

“Two facilities operate units where youths are in room confinement most of the day, and all three facilities operated isolation cells away from living units that were monitored inconsistently by staff or remotely by video feed,” the report stated. “A court would almost certainly find that the use of these isolation cells, when coupled with the lack of contact that youth have with programming and other youth and adults, is a violation of youth’s constitutional rights.”

Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley, who agreed to spend $130,000 on the inspection report, said he was “disturbed,” although not necessarily surprised, by its findings.

Following Gynnya’s death, which happened shortly after Tilley started his job, the Justice Cabinet fired Juvenile Justice Commissioner Bob Hayter and several employees at the detention center where Gynnya was held. That facility later was closed. Tilley recruited Cockerell from Texas in August 2016 and ordered him to reform the department.

“We expected to see most of what we read in this pretty voluminous report,” Tilley said. “These folks in the field who are respected all across the country and who are not going to cut us a break on anything — that’s what we expected. We want this to be aspirational, we want them to set the benchmark for us. Where do we need to be? And the design is to bring them back this time next year to gauge our progress.”

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy is a national nonprofit that lobbies for fewer incarcerated youths. Jason Szanyi, its deputy director, was part of the group that visited Kentucky and inspected its juvenile detention centers.

Szanyi said some of his observations worried him — “to have young people locked in rooms by themselves without regular monitoring is a recipe for serious problems,” he said — but he also was encouraged by the state’s desire to improve.

“We would not have been interested in doing this, quite frankly, if we did not feel as if there was going to be action taken by the department when we were done,” Szanyi said.

‘Devastating to the child’

The Department of Juvenile Justice runs seven detention centers around the state that presently hold 150 youths, typically age 14 to 18, who are charged with various offenses and await action in court. It also operates eight youth development centers that house 192 youths convicted of offenses and serving sentences in state custody. Its budget this fiscal year is about $112 million.

Tilley and Cockerell said that fixing the problems identified by the report will top their agenda in coming months.

That will start with providing mental health care. Although many youths held in juvenile detention have “significant mental health needs,” access to mental health professionals is “extremely limited,” according to the report. At best, a psychiatrist might pass through once every 30 days, placing an “unfair burden” on staff “who are required to manage the behavior of very troubled youth without guidance and support from professionals,” the report stated.

Cockerell said he is trying to recruit one full-time psychologist with a specialty in adolescent behavior for each of the seven detention centers. State funding is available for those positions, he said.

However, Tilley added, “The reality is, there is a national shortage of mental health professionals. Agencies are competing for these jobs and these experts, and it’s particularly acute in rural parts of the country, and as you know, Kentucky outside our triangle is largely rural, and it’s difficult. But we think we can get it done.”

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One of several classrooms at the Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Spurr Road in Lexington. Reggie Beehner

On room confinement, the report recommended that Kentucky limit the practice to situations where a youth poses an imminent physical threat to himself or someone else, with regular face-to-face monitoring to be certain of the youth’s well-being.

Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers impose penalties for certain behaviors, such as speaking or making eye contact without first raising a hand to ask permission, according to the report. As these “micromanagement” violations escalate, adolescents can defiantly lash out, all too often ending up in room confinement, the report stated.

Tilley said he agreed that room confinement should only be used for physical safety threats, and that in those instances, there must be “well-being checks” at least every 15 minutes.

“Neither the commissioner nor I ever want to see the improper use of confinement,” Tilley said. “The effects of that confinement are devastating to the child. This is something we deal with. And I can tell you, that probably disturbed me more than anything, because we — I think we are turning the corner in that regard in the facility we visited. And I thought we were turning the corner more so.”

‘There are better ways’

Another weakness raised in the report is the constant staff shortage that leads to forced overtime and contributes to a high turnover rate among remaining employees. Exhausted or inexperienced staff are less likely to treat residents professionally, the report warned.

The staff shortage should be eased by a 20 percent pay raise that Gov. Matt Bevin approved for 420 juvenile justice employees this year at a cost of about $2 million a year, Tilley said. The starting hourly wage had been $11, which wasn’t enough to hang on to many qualified people, he said. In 2016, the Department of Juvenile Justice hired 151 people while losing 180.

“We haven’t yet seen the fruits of that (pay raise). I think it’s going to take some time,” Tilley said.

Amanda Mullins Bear, managing attorney at the nonprofit Children’s Law Center in Covington, said she credits Tilley “for taking these issues seriously.” The Children’s Law Center sometimes represents youths in state custody.

However, Bear added, the state needs to make a lot of progress. Kentucky’s juvenile justice facilities often lack a full range of educational services, she said, especially for youths who arrive with an individualized special-education plan from their home school districts.

This was a point also made in the inspection report. Inspectors said they saw evidence of school employees inside detention centers “taking steps to alter (individualized) plans” for special-education youths in order to conceal the limited access they had to services they needed. “This is unacceptable, particularly given the high number of youth with learning disabilities and other behavioral and mental health challenges in DJJ detention facilities,” the report stated.

Additionally, Bear said she has heard concerns about a lack of health care at the juvenile justice facilities and a sometimes haphazard dispensing of prescribed medicines that residents rely on for their physical and mental well-being, even when youths arrive with prescriptions from their family doctors.

As for isolated room confinement, Bear said she had hoped that problem was resolved by now.

“Our position is that isolation should be very rare and very short-term, if it’s used at all,” Bear said. “There are better ways to deal with kids than by putting them in isolation.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics