LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For up to 24 hours a day, teenagers can be lodged in Louisville's youth detention center, alone in a room with just a toilet and sink, a table and a small platform for a mattress.

The teens are sent to their rooms and locked there. Officials with Louisville Youth Detention Services say this is a necessary, short-term fix for those who pose a threat to themselves or others.

"When there's a fight or whatever, you have to put the kids up to kind of gain some control into what's going on," said Yvette Gentry, the city’s former Chief of Community Building.

But a team of experts the detention center brought in last summer for a top-down review deemed the use of confinement "extensive and inappropriate" and warned the practice is linked to "suicide and self-harm.” The report found, "a lack of mental health resources, staffing shortages and turnover and the excessive use of room confinement have created dangerous situations in parts of the facility."

Among other things, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy report found teenagers locked up for eight hours for passing candy, 12 hours for taking extra food and a full 24 hours for any talk of gangs. 

"There are issues within the facility that warrant immediate attention," said Jason Szanyi, one of the report’s authors.

The report, obtained under a public records request, says the downtown jail failed to meet most mental health criteria under a set of nationally accepted standards known as the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative -- one of the "most serious" concerns of Szanyi's team. It found jail staff using confinement as a means to deal with mental illness and includes an instance in which a teen was banging his head on the wall and smearing and eating feces.

"There are lots of kids in that facility with extensive history of trauma and severe mental health problems," Szanyi said. "This is a perfect situation where if there had been a mental health pro on site to talk to that young person, you would have had a very different result."

At the time, there wasn't. But since then, a master's level psychologist has been added, said Dr. Ursula Mullins, the juvenile jail’s director.

"I think we're meeting their needs, but I think they have more needs than we even know about," she said.

While city officials say the facility is intended for average stays of 21 days, the average last year was about 24, a number that factors in short stays of several days and those lasting six to nine months. In some cases, teens stay for more than one year waiting for their criminal case to reach disposition.

"We're seeing sicker and sicker kids that have to be detained," Mullins said.

The city contracts with Correct Care Solutions for medical staff, which includes a psychiatrist who can write prescriptions for mental health drugs in the juvenile jail one day a week. The facility also can refer teens to the Brook Hospital or Our Lady of Peace and Centerstone for mental health needs.

But because no full-time mental health workers are on site around the clock, jail staff often are asked to handle teens in distress.  

"Line staff at the facility are not mental health professionals," Szanyi said. "They're not hired to be. They're not trained to be."

Former juvenile jail supervisor Kendrah Sanders said that system leaves teenagers lacking treatment when they need it most. 

"There was a kid there that was referred to house arrest, and he acted up so bad his momma had to tackle him," Sanders said. "I had to help, and we had to walk him back over to the courtroom. And so the judge, of course, put him in secure.

"While he was in secure, he didn't have any medication. So when his grandmother came to pick him up, he was agitated just like he was ... So she was really taking the same kid home that had got in there in the first place."

In fact, the facility's doctor told auditors that it may take up to three days to obtain prescriptions "needed to continue a youth's medicine."

In another case, a teen swallowed staples and pencils after seeing a friend shot and killed in front of him, according to the Center for Children’s Law and Policy report. After a two-week psychiatric stay for extreme depression, he was returned to the juvenile jail. 

The teen later told the independent auditors that during one incident, in which he was shaking and talking to himself, staff members employed the highest response level – a “Code 1,” which is reserved for a “perceived imminent security threat.”

In response, auditors said the child wasn't a security threat and called the show of force a “completely inappropriate response to a psychiatric emergency.”

The teen called the incident “terrifying.”

Szanyi said staff members reacted the way they did because they didn't know what was going on.

"Staff end up getting frustrated and burnt out,” he said. “That can lead to high turnover rate and forced overtime, which can lead to exhaustion and, frankly, less patients to work with young people."

The jail has a nearly 40 percent turnover rate and has lost nearly 4,000 hours in a year to on-the-job illness and injury, city data shows. Current and former workers raised concerns about working conditions to the Louisville Metro Council at least four times last year.

"Investigate what's really going on in that facility," said RaeMonica Cloyd, a 17-year certified officer and 24-year police veteran who was fired from YDS after two months. "Twenty-four-hour lockdown for somebody's child is not safe. It's not safe."

Another jail employee told the council that jail officials need to be more transparent.

"Some people do things the right way, and some people do things the way it need to be done to make it work," said Robert Brown, who was out on medical leave from the detention center when speaking to the council.

Mullins acknowledges that mental health care was already a known weakness in the facility. City leaders have asked for cost estimates from Correct Care Solutions for 24-hour medical and mental health care to submit with the jail's next budget proposal. 

"The CCLP and the JDAI audit didn't decide to do audits to say how well things are going," Mullins cautioned. "Their sole intent and purpose is to come in with a weakness orientation to tell you where are your weaknesses and potential liabilities."

Certain staff have also started deescalation training, and the policy for confinement changed, requiring supervisor approval for any duration exceeding two hours.

On Wednesday, the fourth and final part of this series will look at what changes the jail hopes to make and if those solutions are realistic.

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