Kentucky Politics

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. 

  • In 2016, 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died in her sleep at a state-run facility in Hardin County. Two former employees plead guilty to misconduct for skipping bed checks and falsifying logs.
  • In 2017, the D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law Policy criticized the department for having chronic staffing shortages and almost no access to mental health care.
  • Even though Black people make up about 8% of the state’s population, they account for 43% of youth detained statewide and three-times more likely to have complaints filed against them, according to a KyCIR report from 2018.

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 Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.