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Trouble Behind Bars is a months-long investigation into Kentucky jail deaths. We found preventable deaths that provoked little to no follow-up, as well as failures at all levels of government. Who is dying in your local county jail? Not even the state Department of Corrections has a true, accurate and updated accounting.

Remedies Rare in Kentucky Jail Plagued By Death, Abuse

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This is Part 2 of KyCIR's "Trouble Behind Bars" series. Read Part 1.

Danny Ray Burden fell asleep in mid-sentence as he was booked into the Grant County jail, toppling over on the bench where he sat. Prodded awake, he coughed, shook and pleaded for emergency medical attention.

A blood test showed that the 41-year-old diabetic badly needed insulin, and a doctor ordered it. But Burden never received the drug. Instead, deputies put him in a cell, where they found Burden unconscious just three hours after he had entered the jail on March 27, 2013. He died a week later.

Burden’s relatively minor crime -- failing to make $3,380 in restitution -- suddenly became a capital offense. And he took his place in a long line of victims at Grant County’s deeply and chronically troubled jail.

“It doesn’t need to happen to anyone else,” Danny Burden’s brother, Mark, a retired Kentucky State Police detective, said in a deposition in his pending lawsuit against the jail. “You know the Grant County jail. There’s been issues up there for a long time. It’s not anything new. There’s nothing changing up there, something needs to change.”

During the past dozen years, the now-decaying, 350-bed jail has been plagued by abuse, indifference, ineptitude and malfeasance, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Inmates have died needlessly, been raped, abused and neglected. Lax security, flawed medical care, inadequate training and a raft of other administrative failures flourished. In an effort to cover up misconduct, some jail employees concocted bogus stories, ordered others to lie or destroyed incriminating evidence.

This litany of failures has occurred largely under the watch of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Kentucky Department of Corrections and Grant County government. All of them, despite red flag after red flag, have been unwilling or unable to achieve lasting change at the jail.

Danny Burden’s was just one of several deaths there in recent years. Two inmates committed suicide in 2010, following what the DOJ later called “serious breakdowns in jail medical care.”

Other serious lapses have involved inmate safety. A teenager arrested on a traffic charge in 2003 was raped by inmates who had been encouraged by guards to attack him. And a mentally ill man serving time for a probation violation was sexually abused in 2002 by another inmate after being falsely labeled by guards as a child molester -- a devastating accusation in a detention center.

The Kentucky State Police and local grand juries have investigated jail-related wrongdoing over the years. A current state police case centers on former Jailer Terry Peeples, according to a document obtained by KyCIR.

One grand-jury report, in 2011, cited inadequate supervision and training of jail staff, and recommended that Peeples “immediately contact” the Department of Corrections to request assistance to implement a training program for all jail staff. But the DOC said it had no record of Peeples making such a request.

Peeples, voted out of office last year after serving one term, has been accused in more than a half-dozen lawsuits of misdeeds including sexual harassment of staff, demanding that employees lie on his behalf and threatening to fire some who challenged him.

Peeples’ predecessor, former state trooper Steve Kellam, also had issues on his watch, including incidents of inmate abuse, a major DOJ investigation and the two in-custody suicides.

Both Peeples and Kellam, who served as jailer from 2001 through 2010, refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

In all, inmates and staff have filed more than 50 lawsuits against them and the jail during the past 15 years. Nearly $5 million has been spent so far to settle claims, with more payouts likely.

Of the 19 comparably sized jails in the state, only five had total settlements exceeding even $1 million during the same period, KyCIR found. Just one other jail's total was greater than $4 million.

“Nobody has been able to manage that jail,” said James Crawford, the longtime commonwealth’s attorney for Grant County. “They simply have not done it. If they had, you wouldn’t have had that volume of litigation. I don’t see how anybody, just looking at the lawsuits, could call it anything else but troubled.”

The president of the Kentucky Jailers Association, Oldham County’s Mike Simpson, told KyCIR that former Grant County jailers were “bad actors” and said the association does not condone them or what has taken place at the jail.
Federal Probe Unresolved After 12 Years
In early 2003, a vicious assault inside the jail helped set the stage for what could have been major reforms at the Grant County jail. Court records describe the attack.

Booked into the jail around midnight on Valentine’s Day, the teenager was mocked by guards for the blonde highlights in his hair and the heart shapes on his boxer shorts.
The guards saidhe looked “like a girl.” They called him a “sissy.” And they agreed that he “needed to be scared,” according to a federal appellate court opinion. So they locked him up in cell 101, dubbed the “hallway from hell” due to inmate-on-inmate violence.

“I got some fresh meat for you,” a guard told the dozen inmates in 101. Told to “f—k” with the teenager, the inmates -- all convicted felons -- roared their approval.

( Read more about this case)

When the sexual abuse began, the teen cried out for help. No one responded. He remained in cell 101 for five hours, until morning. No guard checked the cell during the night, even once, though state regulations require hourly observations.

After word of the incident leaked out, the guards fabricated stories in an attempt to cover up their complicity. It didn’t work. Three inmates and three jail deputies eventually went to prison for their roles in the teen’s ordeal.

Within months, the Justice Department undertook a rare -- and major -- step, initiating only its second civil-rights investigation of a Kentucky jail or prison since 1980.

The result: a scathing report in May 2005 that identified an array of constitutional violations at the jail, including preventable inmate-on-inmate assaults and “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ “serious medical needs.” Numerous other management deficiencies, including inadequate staffing and training, also were cited.
In some instances, such DOJ investigations are quickly resolved. If not, the department can take the defiant agency to court. But neither closure nor litigation has occurred in Grant County, where the DOJ’s inquiry has labored on for 12 years, with no end in sight.

Documents obtained by KyCIR show a clear picture of a county aggressively fighting oversight, denying wrongdoing and failing to meet its legal obligations. Meanwhile, the Justice Department responds with rebukes but no show of force, no push for a consent decree or a lawsuit to compel compliance.

In an Aug. 8, 2006, letter to the department, then-Grant County Attorney Edward Lorenz flatly denied any constitutional violations at the jail: “The center is a well-run facility and is viewed as a model facility by the state and the federal courts who utilize this facility to house prisoners.”

The county’s defiance continued for the next two years, as it refused to sign off on DOJ’s proposed 16 “remedial measures” to address inadequacies in medical and mental-health care. In December 2007, Lorenz wrote that “the facility is simply not violating any provisions of the Constitution, any federal law, any state law, either in a criminal or civil sense.”

The county reiterated that position in July 2008, adding that continuing the case “is becoming a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

Finally in 2009, the county capitulated after the department optimistically predicted that just two more inspections of the jail, one per year, would be sufficient to conclude the case. Indeed, the DOJ said, compliance might be attained even sooner. But the Justice Department’s timetable proved to be wildly wishful thinking.

Although Grant County agreed to address the shortcomings, the Justice Department’s three inspections of the jail since 2009 have found barely any improvement or none at all. And in at least one key instance -- on-site mental health care -- conditions actually regressed, the DOJ found.

Meanwhile, the DOJ’s impatience has mounted, but its approach has remained the same: inspect jail, write critical letter to the county, wait a couple of years, repeat process.

Following its December 2009 inspection, the department’s assessment was relatively benign: The jail had “largely been an active and cooperative partner,” but “significant work remains to be done.”

But after the second inspection, in October 2012, the DOJ’s concerns were mounting: In addition to the “serious breakdowns in jail medical care” that had led to the two inmates’ suicides, the department said, “serious, longstanding constitutional problems” had not been addressed.

DOJ attorney Christopher Cheng followed up that broadside with another one in July 2013, complaining that issues at the jail “date back to the beginning of our investigation,” that the county had not even bothered to respond to the second inspection’s findings and that its attitude suggested“indifference toward the constitutional rights of the jail’s inmates.”

( Read the DOJ's letter to Grant County)

The department’s frustration and concern boiled over following its June 2014 inspection.

DOJ said it found “atrocious” documentation of inmate medical issues, “no real physician supervision” of patient care, “grossly deficient” mental-health staffing and “compelling evidence” of the county’s “utter disregard for its constitutional obligations.”

As a result, Cheng asserted in a letter to the county last Oct. 14, inmates are “at continued risk of serious harm.” And he said the DOJ’s spurned offers of assistance were “further evidence of (the county’s) deliberate indifference.”

A year later, the county has yet to respond.

The county also has failed to comply with virtually all of the 16 measures it agreed in 2009 to implement -- and which the DOJ had confidently predicted could be accomplished in two years or less.

After three inspections over five years, the department found that the jail had resolved just two of the 16 areas, and none of the most important ones.

Although the Grant County case is now among the DOJ’s longest-running civil-rights investigations of a county jail, the department would not say why it has not acted more aggressively to force compliance.

Instead, DOJ issued a statement to KyCIR that said it continues to be “actively engaged in the monitoring of its agreement with the Grant County Jail,” and that constitutional violations “do not develop overnight and often require years to correct.”

A department spokeswoman refused repeated requests from KyCIR to answer questions or to elaborate. Cheng declined to comment.
Despite Evidence, State Finds Little Fault
The Grant County Detention Center couldn’t hold Anthony Artrip, a convicted bank robber with “fear no evil” tattooed on his stomach and a record of two prior jailbreaks.

After Artrip climbed a basketball goal on June 24, 2007, and fled the jail with the aid of a sling fashioned from bed sheets, deputies acknowledged that they had searched Artrip’s cell prior to his escape. But they failed to find the sling, which Artrip somehow had managed to conceal from guards for three weeks, records show.

That security blunder was among the reasons that neighboring Pendleton County and the U.S. Marshals Service decided to remove their inmates from the jail. Nearly eight years later, they have not returned.

But neither that incident, nor a host of others involving jail inmate safety and security, appear to have fazed the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

By law, the state DOC is responsible for enforcing jail standards, which include inmates’ rights. And the department’s own mission statement proclaims its intent to ensure “a safe, secure and humane environment for staff and offenders.”

Given the jail’s long history of serious problems, the DOC could have removed its own inmates from the Grant County Jail, or sought a court order to close it. It has done neither, and declined to say why.

The Department of Corrections has found little to complain about there. Its two dozen inspections of it over the past 12 years were largely tepid affairs, DOC’s own records show.

Desi Brooks, the DOC’s regular inspector at the jail, routinely gave it a clean bill of health, rarely if ever expressing significant concerns about what he saw or heard, according to his reports.

Last November, however, another DOC inspector visited the jail and discovered a vastly different landscape. Kirstie Willard reported a “state of chaos” there, as well as a “total lack of leadership and resources available to operate the facility in an efficient, safe and secure manner.”

Willard found that many staff members had either quit or been fired “in light of ongoing lawsuits and investigations.” Jailer Peeples, she was told, had barely been seen in recent weeks.

Deficiencies Willard identified included exposed wiring, inoperable lights, holes in walls, leaking pipes, a porous roof, “mold and horrible odor” seeping out of a kitchen drain and a buckled floor in the walk-in cooler.

“Staff openly admitted that virtually no maintenance had been done to the facility in three years,” Willard wrote.

In all, Willard cited 19 areas of noncompliance -- nearly as many as Brooks had noted during the previous decade.

Just eight months earlier, on March 13, 2014, Brooks had found the jail to be “clean and in an orderly condition.” And neither of Brooks’ 2013 inspectionscited a single area of noncompliance or concern.

Department of Corrections’ officials, including Brooks, refused to be interviewed. The department agreed to accept written questions, but then provided responses to only some of them.

Those responses defended the department’s inspection history at the jail, and asserted that DOC has fulfilled its legal obligations there. “We find no deficiencies in the process of enforcing jail standards,” the DOC said. Asked if it had any concerns about Brooks’ oversight, the department said, “No.”

The department also asserted that the issues noted by Willard last November arose after Brooks toured the jail earlier in the year.

That contention was disputed by Steve Skinner, a former administrative captain at the jail, who said he accompanied Brooks on nearly all of his inspections in recent years, including the March 2014 tour.

“Things didn’t change much if at all” from March to November last year, Skinner said.

And although DOC policy states that at least one inspection each year should be unannounced, Skinner said jail officials routinely received advance notice of Brooks’ inspections during Peeples’ tenure. The department denied that.

Skinner filed a lawsuit last October alleging an array of problems at the jail, including misconduct by Peeples. Those allegations are part of the current state police investigation. Skinner was fired in January by Chris Hankins, the current jailer.

Steve Wood, who was elected Grant County judge-executive last fall and has since taken an active role at the jail, said he “felt like vomiting” when he first toured the building. “I am so embarrassed about the jail.”

Wood said he was incensed after reading the 2014 inspection reports and talking to jail employees, and that he couldn’t understand how Brooks allegedly missed the violations that Willard observed. “I just don’t know why he didn’t report it,” Wood said. “He was either blind, or didn’t want to (know).”

Brooks, meanwhile, was promoted to DOC regional administrator last year, one week before Willard’s findings at the jail called his previous inspections into question. In its written responses, the DOC defended Brooks’ promotion.

Brooks’ investigation into Danny Burden’s death also appears to have been superficial. An April 1, 2013, email obtained by KyCIR, Brooks indicated he spoke to just one person, a jail supervisor, before concluding that Burden “by all accounts appeared fine” when he was booked into the jail.

Although information provided to the state police by other jail personnel directly contradicted that assessment, the DOC nevertheless said it stands by Brook’s handling of the matter.

In addition to the two jail suicides in 2010, two more inmates attempted to kill themselves in 2012. Brooks cited the jail four times between October 2010 and November 2012 for failing to monitor suicidal inmates every 20 minutes, as required by state regulations.

The jail promised to comply and the department took no other action. But when a different DOC employee returned to the jail on July 9, 2015, he reviewed suicide-watch records and found the same violation again.

( Listen to R.G. Dunlop's radio feature on 89.3 WFPL News)

Brooks’ handling of an anonymous letter expressing concern about jail conditions raises additional questions about the thoroughness of the DOC’s oversight.

On February 17, 2012, an unidentified jail employee wrote to county officials that problems at the jail were becoming “increasingly alarming each day,” and expressed concern about the “safety of inmates and staff.” The letter concluded: “I implore you to investigate these dire issues.”

Brooks’ response consisted of a single interview with a jail supervisor, according to a memo by Brooks.

The memo does not mention some of the letter’s most troubling allegations: sexual harassment of inmates and deputies, an “alarming” rate of employee turnover and “deceiving paperwork” intended to mislead officials about actual jail conditions.

Asked why it had not acted more aggressively toward the jail in the past 12 years, the DOC responded:

“The department reviews the operations of the jail and compliance with jail standards as a whole when considering possible administrative actions. The department works with the jails to achieve compliance.”
Local Officials Hands-Off
Until Wood took office in January, Grant County government disclaimed any responsibility for the jail, even though state law clearly requires local oversight.

Darrell Link, the Grant County judge-executive from 1999-2014, could have stepped in. But he refused to say why he had not, telling KyCIR: “I’m gonna decline speaking about the jail. I don’t have any responsibility for the jail, never did.”

By law, however, a fiscal court is required to provide and maintain “a safe, secure, and clean jail in the county” and members have authority over the jail’s budget and personnel.

In the past, Link -- now the executive director of the Kentucky Council of Area Development Districts -- made no secret of his lack of interest in what went on at the jail.

Following a court settlement in September 2005, Link was quoted in The Kentucky Post as saying, “I’m certainly weary of talking about the business of the jail.” And in a deposition shortly before the Justice Department’s 2005 report on the jail, Link declared his hands-off attitude toward it.

He said he had done nothing to investigate because he believed Jailer Steve Kellam’s assertion that the staff had done nothing wrong.

Link also contended that litigation involving the jail was “frivolous.”

“There wasn’t anything that they could have done to prevent whatever possibly happened,” Link said in the deposition. He added that Kellam is “a good, hard man, he’s a good Christian man, and I believe that what he would do would be right.”

Barely a year later, Grant County had agreed to pay $3.6 million to settle seven of those suits. And two former jail employees subsequently claimed in litigation that Link was indifferent to their concerns about the jail.

Wood, the current judge-executive, was critical of Link for his lack of involvement at the jail. Wood recently recalled a meeting with Link last fall.

Wood said that when he asked Link why he hadn’t paid more attention to the jail, Link replied, “It’s not my job,” and denied oversight responsibility.

Wood said he told Link: “Yes, you are (responsible). You control the purse strings, and I think you should have gone over there.”

A $1.5 million renovation of the facility is about to begin and should conclude next year. “I’m trying to make it better, trying to do a good job, trying to get it back up to par,” Wood said. “I’m a taxpayer, too.”

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.