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Lawmakers grill officials on juvenile inmate abuse allegations

Kentucky Capitol

Lawmakers grilled state officials about excessive force and abuse of minors in Kentucky’s juvenile detention facilities on Thursday.

The legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary held the meeting after a scathing article in the Lexington Herald Leader detailed years of corrections officers using violent maneuvers against young inmates, using racial slurs and abandoning posts during riots.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Vicki Reed, who was appointed to the position in August, said the department is working to correct the issues, but defended staff using holds to defend themselves or control kids.

“Honestly, I’d love to completely eliminate them, but realistically there are situations that come up in this line of work,” Reed said.

“When kids are attacking other kids, when kids are attacking staff, and we also serve, unfortunately, a large number of youth with mental health issues, and we have to intercede sometimes to make sure they are not harming themselves.”

Reed is the fifth commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice since 2018. She was appointed to the position after the previous commissioner, LaShana Harris, was fired after alleged harassment and bullying.

The department has been plagued with scandals and problems in recent years.

Rep. Ed Massey, a Republican from Hebron and chair of the committee, said he was disappointed the department didn’t do more to raise awareness about the problems.

“My concern as a chairman, candidly, is that I find out about these things through media attention, not through any reports I’ve received internally or from your predecessors, that’s very concerning to me,” Massey said.

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville, expressed sympathy for the corrections officers.

“If a kid runs at you and you push him off, that’s excessive force. What do you expect these people to do?” Wheeler said. “I don’t think you can necessarily just expect people to stand by and allow themselves to be severely injured.”

The Herald Leader article recounted two riots that took place at the McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Paducah in which corrections officers either watched through the windows or abandoned their posts.

Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union, said corrections officers don’t have the tools they need to control inmates.

“A sixteen or 17-year-old can be very powerful, very powerful, and if a person abandons their station, and I’ve talked to several of these detention officers myself because I was interested—they were in fear for their lives,” Schickel said.

Schickel said officers should use pepper spray and restraining chairs on juvenile inmates.

“Nobody’s asking the question: Was there any additional charges to these juvenile thugs that were trying to take this place over and doing this riot?” Schickel said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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