Louisville's juvenile jail fights for solutions to 'longstanding problems' despite impending budget cuts
The youth jail operated by Louisville Metro government suffers from “longstanding problems,” including high turnover among its staff and inadequate educational instruction for the kids in its custody, according to an independent audit completed last year.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The youth jail operated by Louisville Metro government suffers from “longstanding problems,” including high turnover among its staff and inadequate educational instruction for the kids in its custody, according to an independent audit completed last year.
The report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, dated September 2017, was completed at the behest of metro government and the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. It details conditions at Louisville Metro Youth Detention Services, which at any given time houses about 70 kids – typically teenagers – who are charged with crimes such as robbery, homicide, drug possession and carrying concealed weapons.
The teens’ stay in the jail last 24 days on average, but for some, it can be months or even years.
Officials with Louisville Metro and Jefferson County Public Schools, which provides teachers to the jail, say they have been working to fix the problems within budget constraints.
“While we have those kids, for whatever time we have them, we’re going to do everything we can,” said youth jail director Dr. Ursula Mullins.
‘Unsafe conditions for youth and staff’
One of the main problems, according to the audit, is the jail’s staffing, hiring and training practices.
“Staff shortages and hiring concerns have created a constellation of issues” that result in “unsafe conditions for youth and staff,” according to the audit, which was obtained by WDRB News under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
Mullins said keeping workers is a constant challenge.
“There is a thing called corrections fatigue or compassion fatigue,” she said. “And it’s a real thing. Kids are unpredictable. They’re hormonal. And so this work is even more taxing on our staff.”
Last year, according to city data, nearly 40 percent of the jail’s staff left the job.
"YDS was never set up to be a rehabilitation center. But the type of kids that we're seeing now and the types of crimes that are being committed are much more severe than what we've seen in the past .. And so we are having to rethink about what we are providing and also rethink about what services do we have capacity to provide.
- Vincent James
Much of this turnover is among secure detention staff, the guards who are responsible for monitoring kids in custody. Jail leaders acknowledge the high turnover rate forces employees to work more overtime.
“Regardless of how seasoned program workers are, no one can expect staff to be effective in the very demanding jobs at the LMYDS for sixteen hours at a time,” according to the audit.
Vincent James, Louisville Metro’s Chief of Community Building – a top position reporting to Mayor Greg Fischer – acknowledged that jail employees often “get frustrated … not feeling like they have all the tools to be successful.”
He said as the jail fills positions, many new hires are learning as they go.
“A lot of times, that’s really challenging,” James said. “It’s like changing a tire while the car is still rolling.”
The audit recommends hiring more staff, requiring them to have more experience, offering increased salaries and providing more training. Jail leaders said they are in the process of hiring and training more workers.
The jobs start at $16.48 per hour, according to Mullins.
However, many current and former employees of the jail have voiced concerns that the jail leaders are not properly training new hires or sufficiently supporting current staff members. During Metro Council committee meetings, staff members have asked council members to hold jail leaders accountable for things like rampant overtime creating safety and health concerns.
The audit also pointed out several problems regarding health and mental health care, confinement, safety, and sexual misconduct at the jail. Those topics were addressed in WDRB investigations earlier this week.
Not enough classroom time
Meanwhile, more than half of the kids housed at the jail aren’t getting in-person classroom instruction at any given time, violating state and federal law, according to the audit, which you can read in its entirety below.
Metro Council President David James said the limited education offered to kids in the jail is unacceptable.
“I don’t know how we expect children to do better,” James said. “And we talk about how education is key to the future of our community and our country. And we are intentionally, as a city, denying educational opportunities to kids who are already having challenges.”
Mullins said the jail’s limitations affect classroom time. Confinement, disciplinary action, court restrictions, physical space and staff shortages all contribute to children often completing educational packets alone in a room instead of going to class inside the jail.
Officials with the jail and Jefferson County Public Schools are working to change things, Mullins said.
“The detention center has full autonomy over choosing whether one, two or the whole unit can leave and go to the classroom,” said Katy Zeitz, the JCPS assistant superintendent who supervises teachers assigned to the jail.
Zeitz said it is difficult for the teachers to provide instruction for every child according to their varying levels of education. And they also have to consider how much they can cover in the days, weeks, months or years the kids might spend in the jail.
“They love coming to class,” Zeitz said. “They would rather be in their classroom than in their unit.”
Before the audit, JCPS had five full-time teachers and one special education teacher assigned to the jail. An assistant principal and school counselor were on site one day each week. Since the audit, JCPS has made the assistant principal a full-time position at the jail and added a physical education teacher.
"Systems like ours are not designed to do that. They're kind of full of red tape and barriers. So how do we make sure we keep it safe? Because that's the No. 1 thing is keep it safe. But also do things that make school more engaging and accessible to the kids that are there."
- Dr. Katy Zeitz
District officials are still working with jail staff to determine how they can provide more consistent educational services and more online, personalized lesson options. However, Zeitz said it is up to the jail, because safety is the top priority.
“We’ve already made some sweeping changes to that to make sure we cannot be a barrier to that,” Mullins said.
There is one area in which the jail’s director said her hands are tied: the Home Incarceration Program.
“We don’t control that kid when they’re not in secure detention,” Mullins said.
In 2017, 18 teenagers were charged with murder. Some of those crimes happened while the teens accused of committing them were released from the jail on home incarceration, a decision made by a judge.
“The issue we’re having with kids on home incarceration who are committing crimes could be that we may not have the right kids out on home incarceration,” Mullins said.
HIP was not a focus of the audit. However, Mullins said the jail wants to provide more input to judges when they decide which kids to let out on HIP.
“Sometimes our kids are apples that have fallen directly from the tree,” Mullins said. “So we can come in and tell them certain ways to do things, but if that’s not reinforced in the home, how do we fix that?”
The jail’s leaders said their job is to make sure kids in their care are safe, not to rehabilitate them. The facility is meant to hold kids for only three weeks, even if some stay much longer.
“Kids’ lives are at risk,” Mullins said. “The time that we have them, we’re here to keep them safe. We’re here to try and teach them what we can.”
The audit recognized the jail has added some activities but states many children do not have regular access to them or find them boring. Residents described the programs to the team of auditors as “just listening to people talking at you.” The report also concludes it does not appear the jail is actively creating “programs to benefit justice-involved youth.”
Kendrah Sanders was the supervisor of Community Based Services at the jail for two years. She wrote a whistleblower complaint last year and resigned. One of the concerns she voiced during an interview was the lack of programming provided for the teenagers and their families.
“These kids are becoming more violent,” Sanders said. “Their needs are becoming more complex. These parents are asking for help. They’re begging for help. We have nothing to offer them.”
Sanders said she wrote policies, researched new programs and made suggestions. Her ideas were not welcomed by jail leaders, she said.
“The city deserves more,” Sanders said. “It should demand ... that we do more to work with these kids.”
She said the teenagers are at risk of committing more crimes in the future without the jail providing more resources and properly tracking the children, the families and results.
"To the kids, don't give up and continue to try to do the right thing ... But as administrators, we've got to do better by these kids that desperately need our help, that are crying for attention, and their needs have to be met."
- Kendrah Sanders
“Based on statistics of being a resident of YDS, the likelihood of them continuing on with some sort of worst behavior is very high,” Vincent James said.
Vincent James said he is trying to make more connections with other Metro Government departments to help provide more activities, programs and mentors to help interrupt the residents’ trajectory of bad decisions.
“We’re providing for their needs,” Mullins said. “We’re meeting our mission. But can we do more? Absolutely.”
But doing more requires more money. And that poses a problem for the people running the jail.
“We’re looking at years of lack of investment in youth in the community,” Vincent James said.
Fischer recommended a budget of $9.37 million for fiscal year 2018, which was nearly $600,000 less than the year before. Metro Council approved the budget recommendation, and during Metro Council’s Budget Committee hearing in May 2017, Mullins presented to council members and didn't make any extra requests.
David James said he is willing to work with the mayor’s office and the jail to figure out what funding is needed for the future. However, he said he wishes someone from the jail spoke up sooner.
The jail also receives funding from the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. According to internal emails, the department proposed a 40 percent cut to Louisville’s juvenile jail budget for fiscal year 2018. As of January 2017, 9 percent was cut from the budget, and jail leaders were negotiating how to manage the remaining 31 percent to make it more manageable.
WDRB requested an interview with the Department of Juvenile Justice multiple times, but a spokesperson for the department said no one would be made available.
Mullins and Vincent James are expecting more budget cuts for next year, but they are not sure to what extent. They said they will need to become more creative in how they attempt to implement changes and may need to consider trimming services without losing quality.
“That’s the part people avoid talking about,” Mullins said. “People have a hard time talking about the fact that it actually is going to take some more investment to do the quality work we know we need to do.”
Vincent James said his team is up to the task of tackling the “longstanding problems” addressed in the independent audit. He also believes that, to be successful, the community needs to be involved.
"We do try hard. Our social worker monitoring home incarceration care deeply about the kids and the family and leave no stone unturned."
- Dr. Ursula Mullins
Mullins emphasized the jail is part of the juvenile justice system, which needs to be revamped.
“Personally, I feel like it is the responsibility of the director,” David James said. “But ultimately, it’s up to the administration.
“It’s not serving the people, the youth that are in there. We’re putting our employees in jeopardy. And administratively, bad things are happening.”
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