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DOJ investigating alleged civil rights abuses at Kentucky youth detention centers

By Mike Heuer

May 15 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation at eight Kentucky youth detention centers and one youth development center, the DOJ announced Wednesday.

Allegations of excessive force, prolonged isolation and threats of violence and sexual abuse prompted the investigation.

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"Confinement in the juvenile justice system should help children avoid future contact with law enforcement and mature into law-abiding, productive members of society," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said.

"Too often, juvenile justice facilities break our children, exposing them to dangerous and traumatic conditions," Clarke added.

The investigation will focus on "systemic violations of the rights of young people" in detention centers that primarily hold children and teens while they await court hearings in Kentucky, according to the DOJ.

The Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section and the U.S. attorneys' offices for the western and eastern districts of Kentucky jointly are conducting the investigation.

The civil rights investigation was announced less than a week after a Kentucky newspaper reported on the conditions teenagers experienced at four detention centers run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.

Those detention centers are located in Kentucky's Adair, Campbell, Fayette and McCracken counties, where riots, attacks and escapes have occurred in recent years.

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Teenage inmates submitted 87 handwritten grievances from January 2023 through March of this year, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Thursday.

Department employees reviewed and determined the grievances are legitimate complaints and commonly involved poor sanitation, safety issues, staff behavior and unclean or bad food.

The grievances say inmates were fed spoiled milk and burned or uncooked food served in dirty cups and eating utensils.

The inmates also complained that guards withheld showers, didn't conduct safety checks and didn't provide prescription medicines.

They also say bed sheets were not washed for weeks and inmates threatened other inmates with sexual violence. Cells sometimes had no running water, lacked hot water and had no air conditioning.

Another grievance said guards wouldn't provide cleaning supplies after an inmate vomited on a cell floor.

Kentucky's Juvenile Justice Department operates 14 juvenile detention centers and development centers throughout the commonwealth.

Several juvenile inmates have filed federal lawsuits against the Juvenile Justice Department.

Recently appointed Kentucky Juvenile Justice Commissioner Randy White, in a prepared statement, said he is "instating a new process" to respond to legitimate grievances by youth inmates and ensure consistency among each detention and development center and department programs.

The DOJ asks anyone with relevant information to contact the department by calling (888) 392-8241 or by sending an email [email protected].

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