Deaths behind bars demand scrutiny

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has calculated that more than 150 people died while in custody in county jails in Kentucky from 2009 to the middle of last year.

There are at least two troubling things about this situation, beyond the obvious fact of the deaths.

First, no one is really sure about the number since there is no system for collecting and recording information about jail deaths. Second, even among those recorded, the factors that led to the death are unclear in many cases because no individual or office is responsible for investigating these deaths.

Motivated by KyCIR’s reporting this past year on jail deaths, and the recent death of a 16-year-old girl in a state juvenile detention facility, Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, has introduced House Bill 400 to create a panel to look into deaths and near-deaths in all Kentucky correctional facilities.

We urge the House Judiciary Committee, whose chair, Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, is a co-sponsor, to discuss this measure, and the problem it seeks to address, during this session.

Both Louisville Attorney Greg Belzley, who has sued the state and counties over imprisonment conditions, and Ray Sabbatine, a corrections consultant and former Fayette County jailer, raised legitimate concerns about HB 400.

But their concerns are all the more reason to vet the measure and possible alternatives in full view of the public. That will be a good first step toward creating a system that assures people don’t lose either their humanity or their most fundamental rights when they are incarcerated.

Right now, there is no effective system.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections is charged with inspecting and overseeing jails but maintains that investigating jail deaths does not fall within its duties and is instead the job of law enforcement. However, no level of law enforcement — local, state or federal — has seemed very interested, either. No surprise, then, that Corrections has apparently not sanctioned even one jail in connection with an inmate death and, while the Kentucky State Police and local grand juries have investigated some deaths, many seem to just disappear.

Wayne noted that many people in prisons and jails are poor and members of minority groups. They and their families have very little power and so when they die in government custody the families are left with little recourse. “They cry and get angry but nothing happens,” Wayne said.

Something needs to happen.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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