Ky. juvenile justice facility faces police probe, firings despite promises of reform
In response to riots and assaults at the Department of Juvenile Justice, legislation was passed to increase staff salaries, enhance security, among other measures
By John Cheves
NEWPORT, Ky. — Despite promises of reform at the troubled Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, it has seen serious trouble this year at its all-girls detention center in Northern Kentucky, including excessive use of force by staff, failure to monitor suicidal youths and the recent alcohol-related firing of its superintendent, according to a Herald-Leader review of state records.
Also, the Kentucky State Police is investigating “potential criminal activity” involving a male correctional officer and one or more girls housed at the Campbell Regional Juvenile Detention Center that was captured on security video May 23 and May 30, according to Morgan Hall, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.
Hall would not answer questions to specify the wrongdoing alleged in the incidents.
That officer was fired effective June 7, but “steps were taken to ensure the employee could not reenter the building after May 30,” Hall said. “He did not work between May 31 and June 7 and would not have been allowed to have contact with youths.”
Officials at the Campbell RJDC in downtown Newport were reviewing security video May 31 when they saw the incidents, Hall said. They referred the matter to state police as well as the Justice Cabinet Internal Investigations Branch, both of whom still have cases open, she said. No charges have been filed.
Reacting to a series of riots, assaults and escapes at DJJ facilities, the General Assembly passed reform legislation last winter to spend tens of millions of dollars on higher staff salaries, enhanced security and better mental health services, among other measures.
DJJ also hired two experienced state prison wardens in newly created positions — James Sweatt as executive director and Larry Chandler as deputy executive director of the Office of Detention — to make its facilities safer.
And Gov. Andy Beshear announced last December that the Campbell RJDC would house all of the teen-aged girls in state custody, following a rape that took place during a riot at the juvenile detention center in Adair County.
But Beshear changed course in June. He said girls instead would be sent to a Boyd County lockup because of a critical staff shortage in Campbell County. The boys held at the Boyd County facility were transferred to Breathitt County.
“This is a step no one wants to have to take, to move juveniles to different facilities, but this is our best opportunity to provide the most safety for them,” Beshear said at a news conference.
‘I really messed that up’
For now, the Campbell RJDC — with 19 correctional officers — will house local youths from Northern Kentucky.
But it will do so under new leadership. DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed fired the facility’s superintendent, Kraig McWhorter, effective Aug. 12
In a dismissal letter, DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed told McWhorter that he violated policy by releasing a girl from custody June 15 without asking the adult who collected her to present identification or fill out the necessary paperwork. Instead, McWhorter told the girl to sign the adult’s name on the paperwork, Reed wrote.
According to the letter, Division Director David Kazee, who is McWhorter’s supervisor, later confronted him: “So you had a child forge a state document?”
McWhorter replied: “Man, I really messed that up, didn’t I?”
One day earlier, McWhorter came into work at 1:22 a.m. noticeably staggering and smelling of alcohol in front of witnesses, Reed wrote. When he was reminded — not for the first time — that policy forbade him from entering the building after drinking alcohol, the superintendent said, “Well, it’s OK, I only came into the lobby,” Reed wrote.
However, Reed wrote, the lobby is part of the building. Also, she said, security video later showed McWhorter in the facility’s intake area interacting with a youth, which meant he lied about his activities that morning, she wrote.
DJJ is interviewing applicants to find McWhorter’s replacement, Hall said.
McWhorter could not be reached this week for comment.
Punching, cursing, pepper spray
Among other problems documented this year at the Campbell RJDC, according to state records:
▪ During a Jan. 23 restraint, a youth worker grabbed a girl by her pony tail and punched her in the face while McWhorter placed his forearm against her neck and forced her face into a wall, an action that he disputed even after he was shown security video, according to an internal investigation. The youth worker was fired.
▪ A male youth worker was terminated Feb. 11 for “boundary issues with residents.” Two girls said they spoke to him by phone from their unit at the facility, but internal investigators said they could neither prove nor disprove that he was making off-the-job contact with the girls. He declined to be interviewed by investigators.
▪ McWhorter was faulted for a Feb. 22 incident in which a girl on suicide watch was left in a secured room without supervision for an unknown period of time due to a severe staff shortage. A correctional lieutenant told internal investigators this “was not uncommon,” even for high-risk suicidal youths, internal investigators wrote.
▪ A University of Kentucky Healthcare contract nurse inappropriately withheld prescribed medication and medical care from girls in March and lied about conducting a building-wide COVID-19 test that he had been instructed to administer, internal investigators wrote. The DJJ canceled that nurse’s contract with UK Healthcare, Hall said.
▪ A correctional captain, who resigned effective Aug. 15, was cited for leaving unsupervised a self-harming girl on suicide watch on March 8, allowing her to enter the medical office, break into a sharps box, get a used needle and stick herself in her already wounded left wrist, spattering blood on the floor.
▪ The same captain used excessive force on a girl May 3, internal investigators wrote. The girl was picking paint off the floor in her locked cell, they wrote. The captain looked in through the door and told her to stop and to hand him the paint chips she had collected so far.
“Give me that sh-t, give me that, give it to me,” the captain said, according to video of the incident.
The captain opened the door. When the girl extended her arm to hand him the paint chips, he sprayed her with oleoresin capsicum spray, also known as pepper spray, a painful inflammatory agent. She immediately dropped the paint chips. The captain kicked the door closed.
“Stupid sh-t, she wouldn’t give it up,” the captain told his colleagues, according to video.
The girl spent the next 10 minutes behind the locked door, asking to be taken to the bathroom so she could wash out her burning eyes, according to internal investigators. Finally, the captain helped escort the girl to the bathroom, telling her, “If you act up, I am going to spray you again, you know what I’m saying?” according to video.
The captain told internal investigators the girl earlier had been defiant and threatening, so he felt justified in using pepper spray when he opened her cell door.
His explanation to investigators: “The OC spray is new to the facility, and it is being pushed as the first response, ahead of physical and mechanical restraint. He stated OC spray could be used if a staff member felt threatened.”
▪ A probation and parole officer working overtime at the facility was faulted for failing to perform a mandatory pat-down search of a girl who was admitted March 30. The girl was able to smuggle in a marijuana vape pen, which she later admitted to passing around the population. Some of the girls later tested positive for marijuana.
Disciplinary action in this case is still being reviewed, Hall said.
▪ A male correctional officer went into a girl’s cell at 3:30 a.m. while she apparently was sleeping in bed, lifted her legs by the ankles, dropped them and then flicked her on the head with a finger. The girl had just returned from the hospital and was on suicide watch.
The officer later told investigators he was concerned because of the girl’s self-harm attempts, so he went into her cell that morning to communicate with her. They had talked in the past about her mental health struggles, he said.
That officer was “verbally coached” after the incident, Hall said.