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Kentucky detention center holding girls in barbaric conditions minus toilets, lawsuit says

By Andrew Wolfson - Louisville Courier Journal

Jan 18, 2024

Children have been held in Kentucky state custody at the Adair County Youth Detention Center in conditions so barbaric they would violate the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed Sunday in Bowling Green. 

Filed against three state agencies, the suit alleges children were locked down in isolation for up to weeks at a time and forced to eat, sleep and defecate in their cells. 

The complaint against the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services alleges the facility is chronically understaffed with as few as five staffers for as many as 40 residents. 

Morgan Hall, a spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the department denies "the allegations in the lawsuit and will defend accordingly."

The lawsuit claims:

  • Plumbing did not work or sometimes was intentionally turned off. 
  • Medications were withheld as a form of punishment.
  • One girl spent days soaking in her own menstrual blood while staff told her she was “nasty” and smelled like fish.
  • Another child was held in an isolation cell with the door’s window covered while a Spanish language version of “Baby Shark” played on a loop.

It says another girl in 2022 was given so little access to showers that she had to resort to washing herself with her bra. Following an attempt at self-harm, she was moved to a padded cell that lacked a bed or working toilet, and urine and feces flooded the sleeping area.  

Though the girl initially was provided a “suicide mock,” the center’s superintendent, Tonya Burton, allegedly took it away and wouldn’t give clothes for 12 days, according to the suit.

The center is one of six statewide and houses juveniles who have been adjudicated or are awaiting trial. Other residents are in state custody but are not part of the criminal justice system. 

The lawsuit, which seeks punitive and compensatory damages as well as court supervision of the center, was filed by Louisville attorneys Laura Landenwich, Erin Stemle and John Friend. 

Landenwich said nurses at the center alerted them to issues there. She said the state recently gave employees pepper spray, which made things worse. 

Morgan said the Department of Juvenile Justice "works tirelessly to provide safe and effective services to the juveniles in its care. For any staff member who violates policy and procedure, corrective action is taken. "

The facility has been under scrutiny at least since a similar lawsuit last year and a Nov. 11, 2022, riot in which several young people and staff were wounded.