Investigating county jails

People who think what happens in county jails is someone else’s problem should think carefully about what happened to a teenage boy, arrested for a traffic violation, in the Grant County Jail in 2003.

A federal judge laid out the facts in a 2010 opinion. Called “a sissy” by guards who made fun of the light highlights in his hair, they threw him into a cell where inmate-on-inmate violence had earned it the name the “hallway from hell.” … Throughout the night, the boy called for help as he was raped and beaten but no guard ever came by, even though state regulations require hourly observation of prisoners in cells.

This could happen to anyone: A kid who drove too fast or drank too much or was in the wrong place at the wrong time; an adult who has committed a nonviolent crime like violating parole or failing to pay restoration, or disorderly conduct.

And that’s why the Kentucky General Assembly must focus on creating a system of accountability to ensure people imprisoned and working in county jails are not denied their Constitutional rights.

While … many county jails are well run, there is no safety net, no guarantee by local, state or federal governments that horrible abuse of prisoners and employees and terrible mismanagement in any given county jail will be stopped or even noticed:

• There are no professional requirements for jailers, an elected position.

• County fiscal courts control the purse strings for jails, but cannot remove jailers.

• The state Department of Corrections houses many prisoners in county jails and is responsible for inspecting them, but when serious offenses are alleged the investigation is handed off to the Kentucky State Police.

• The federal Department of Justice has investigated the Grant County Jail, but taken little action.

• Even within the legislature, oversight of jails is split among various committees, including judiciary and state and local government.

This diffuse and confusing oversight no doubt plays a role in the persistent problems at jails, reported this past week in a series of stories by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s R.G. Dunlop. Problems persisted at Grant County well after that teenager suffered a horrible night of abuse.

According to KyCIR’s analysis, since 2000 Grant County has paid almost $5 million to settle 41 lawsuits related to abuse in the jail. During that period counties across Kentucky have paid more than $52 million to settle legal claims arising from their jails, according to the KyCIR’s analysis.

But not just money is lost. During the past six and a half years, KyCIR reports, an inmate in a Kentucky jail has died an average of about once every 15 days. The reports detail cases in which inmates died after being denied appropriate medical care, and of suicidal inmates being left alone in cells with sheets who then hanged themselves.

Ultimately, as Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen recommended in an exhaustive 2006 study of county jails when she was auditor, counties should probably just get out of the jail business in favor of a unified state corrections system. Many of the inmates in county jails are already state prisoners. Indeed, now there are 41 counties without jails, although they still have jailers, a position mandated by Kentucky’s constitution.

Luallen’s proposal is a long-term fix, one that will require enormous political will and money. We urge the General Assembly to begin work on it right away.

But this human-rights crisis cannot wait and the legislature should not wait to investigate and address it.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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