This story has been updated to include a statement from the Department of Corrections.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections has named Rodney Ballard, Fayette County’s jailer, as its new commissioner.
Ballard will begin his state job on March 14, replacing LaDonna Thompson, who has served as commissioner since 2008, according to three sources who requested anonymity because an official staff announcement was pending.
Ballard on Friday morning referred questions to the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which includes the Department of Corrections. A cabinet spokeswoman declined to immediately confirm Ballard’s appointment. The agency issued a statement Friday afternoon.
Ballard, a former state police officer, has run the Division of Community Corrections in Lexington since March 2012. In that capacity, he oversaw a 1,266-bed jail, the state’s second-largest. Before that, Ballard was the state Department of Corrections’ deputy commissioner for Community Services & Local Facilities.
In his new job, Ballard will oversee the operations of the state’s correctional institutions and a variety of community-based services. The agency has nearly 4,500 employees and an annual budget of about $500 million.
Thompson, who became the department’s first female commissioner when then-Gov. Steve Beshear named her to the post in 2008, could not be reached for comment Friday. The agency’s press release notes she is retiring.
The DOC’s policies and practices have received scrutiny and criticism in connection with a series of stories last year by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and legislative initiatives resulting from those stories. The accounts detailed abuses in some of the state’s jails and lax DOC monitoring of those jails. (Read the “Trouble Behind Bars” series)
KyCIR found 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, and the causes of more than 40 percent of those deaths were listed ambiguously in the DOC’s records.
At least several of those deaths appeared to have involved jail staff lapses, misconduct or indifference, but the DOC’s own findings and follow-up in those cases were sketchy or nonexistent.
The DOC does not appear to have sanctioned a single jail in connection with any inmate deaths that occurred during the 6 ½-year period.
Partly as a result of these findings, state Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville last week introduced legislation that would create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s correctional facilities, including jails and prisons.
Wayne referred to his proposal as a “sunshine bill” to remind officials “to be more vigilant in monitoring inmates.”
“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,” Wayne said.
The DOC says investigations of jail deaths routinely fall to law enforcement. But despite civil settlements, damning court opinions and an occasional criminal inquiry involving some of the state’s jails, there have been no recommendations by the department for more or better training of jail personnel.
KyCIR’s stories also detailed evidence of substandard jail health care, including understaffed and inadequately trained medical teams, causing or contributing to inmate deaths. However, there has been no tightening of state policies and procedures to ensure proper care — despite the DOC’s motto that pledges a “safe, secure and humane environment” for inmates.
On Thursday, state Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville said he plans to hold hearings this summer on jail deaths associated with substandard health care.
The DOC released the following statement Friday afternoon:
Rodney Ballard, a 35-year career law enforcement and corrections’ professional, has been appointed as the new Commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
LaDonna Thompson, a 27-year veteran of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, has announced her intent to retire as Commissioner March 1.
“In Rodney Ballard, we have a professional who has extensive experience and expertise in both state and local corrections and has most recently directed operations at the Fayette County Detention Center,” said Justice & Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley. “I have the utmost confidence in his abilities and look forward to working closely with him to meet the challenges of 21st century corrections.”
Ballard assumes his post on March 14.
“I want to thank Gov. Matt Bevin and Secretary Tilley for the appointment, and I’m excited to join the Governor’s justice and public safety team,” Ballard said.
Ballard comes to the department with decades of experience in both law enforcement and corrections. He previously served as Deputy Commissioner of Corrections for Community Services & Local Facilities from 2008 to 2012. In this position he exercised oversight for both the Division of Probation and Parole and the Department’s Division of Local Facilities, which includes state jail inspectors.
Since 2012, he has served as director of the Division of Community Corrections in Lexington, in charge of the Fayette County Detention Center with its nearly 1,300 beds and $33.5 million budget.
Ballard began his public safety career as a police officer in Northern Kentucky before joining the Kentucky State Police in 1982 for what would be a decorated 17-year career as both Trooper and Investigator.
Upon his retirement from KSP, Ballard served as chief deputy of the Kenton County Detention Center.
Ballard holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Northern Kentucky University.
Kentucky Public Radio’s Ryland Barton contributed to this report. 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.