A panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s correctional facilities would be created by legislation introduced Thursday in the state House of Representatives.
Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, called it a “sunshine bill” and said its intent is to remind officials “to be more vigilant in monitoring inmates.”
“The idea is that if you cast light on all of this information and get it before an objective panel, they can review the information and determine what is factual and what may be a cover-up, to be blunt about it,” Wayne told WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
“Because what happens, according to evidence that has been presented, there are serious questions about how responsible the prison officials and jail officials may be in monitoring the inmates.”
The panel also would be responsible for reviewing deaths and near-fatalities in youth detention centers and private corrections facilities that contract with the state.
Wayne said the impetus for his legislation came from a series of stories last year by KyCIR detailing abuses in some of the state’s jails, including lax oversight by staff, shortcomings in health care provided by for-profit companies and lax monitoring by the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which includes the Department of Corrections. (Read the "Trouble Behind Bars" series)
The investigation found that not even the DOC had a true, accurate and updated accounting of who was dying in Kentucky’s jails, or why.
The need to act was further heightened, Wayne said, when 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died on Jan. 11 in a state-run juvenile-detention facility in Hardin County. Her death remains under investigation and no cause has been publicly disclosed, but Wayne said it is “just more evidence there that we need to be monitoring the situation.”
Wayne’s bill is similar in some respects to legislation enacted in 2013 that created an independent panel to review child deaths and near-fatalities reported to the state and involving suspected abuse or neglect.
The panel described in Wayne’s proposed legislation would consist of seven voting members, including two retired judges, two board-certified pathologists and a mental-health professional; and 13 non-voting members who would include two legislators, four officials of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and representatives of five associations of local officials.
The panel’s recommendations stemming from its investigations would be reported to various committees and government agencies. It would then be their responsibility ‘“to take over and to follow through with any recommendations,” Wayne said.
“This panel is investigative and review only. It’s not prosecutorial, and it doesn’t have any legislative authority in itself.”
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Wayne’s proposal was immediately criticized by several Kentucky authorities on corrections policy and in-custody deaths.
“I can't decide whether this is a blatant attempt to insulate the state and counties from the consequences of their neglect of inmate health issues, or whether this is a good-faith effort by a concerned legislator who is nonetheless naive in the extreme and is bent on doing things ‘the Frankfort way,’” said Louisville attorney Greg Belzley, who has repeatedly sued the state’s jails and prisons over conditions of confinement.
Among other things, Belzley questioned whether the panel would be truly independent, due to the large number of non-voting members with ties to state and local government.
Similar concerns were expressed by former Fayette County Jailer Ray Sabbatine, now a corrections consultant.
“I don’t like governing by commission,” Sabbatine said. “Too many actors that may have a vested interest. This bill will create a circus. It will create conflict among the competing interests and screw up possible litigation. I would oppose such a bill.”
In response to criticism that the panel has too-close ties to those it is supposed to oversee, Wayne said the non-voting members are included "for advisory purposes only," and that the panel's real authority is vested in the seven voting members.
Those seven panelists "can and should hear advice from the stakeholders," but the non-voting members' presence is "not intended to dilute the independence of the board," Wayne added.
The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wayne’s bill. Renee Craddock, executive director of the Kentucky Jailers Association, said it had not had an opportunity to review the bill and therefore had no response to it.
Wayne said he hoped the bill would at least receive a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee during this legislative session. Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville, the Judiciary Committee chair, also is a chief sponsor of the bill.
Among KyCIR’s findings last year was the fact that the Department of Corrections often reached flawed or incomplete conclusions about how and why inmates die in the state’s jails.
More than 150 inmates died in a Kentucky jail from 2009 through mid-2015, KyCIR found, and the causes of more than 40 percent of those deaths were listed ambiguously in the DOC’s records.
Moreover, KyCIR found, although at least several of those deaths appeared to have involved jail staff lapses, misconduct or indifference, the DOC’s own findings and follow-up in those cases were sketchy or nonexistent.
Several other deaths in the state’s jails were not reflected at all in the department’s records. And the DOC apparently did not sanction a single jail in connection with any of the inmate deaths that occurred during the six-and-a-half year period.
The department has long maintained that investigating jail deaths is not its responsibility, but rather that of law enforcement. The department’s responsibilities do, however, include ensuring the safety of inmates and staff, as well as enforcing jail standards, such as those related to training.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.
This story was reported by WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.