Investigate deaths, reform county jails

The Grant County Detention Center in Williamstown, one of the state’s most troubled and the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for more than a decade, is closing.
The Grant County Detention Center in Williamstown, one of the state’s most troubled and the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for more than a decade, is closing. File photo

At last the Grant County jail will close.

The decision by the county fiscal court came only a few weeks after yet another assessment by the federal Department of Justice that found the jail — which has been the target of 41 lawsuits since 2000, resulting in almost $5 million in settlements — still fell far short of constitutional standards in its treatment of prisoners.

But the closure came about not because of the dreadful history and conditions at the jail but as the result of a raging political battle among the elected jailer, county judge and fiscal court members that finally turned on the economics of running the jail.

And closing that jail will do nothing to change the chaotic, dysfunctional, constitutionally suspect world of county jails in Kentucky.

That task is still left to the recently formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, state criminal justice officials and the General Assembly.

Short-term, they should endorse and enact a proposal by Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, to create an independent board to examine every inmate death in state and local correctional facilities, including jails.

Longer-term, they must define a path toward a system of prisons and jails with consistent standards of training and pay for staff, and treatment of prisoners.

As the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has documented, there are no professional requirements to run for jailer. So, often county jails are under the supervision of someone with no experience or training in the field.

While counties must pay the bills for the jails, neither the county judges nor fiscal courts play any role in managing them. The state Department of Corrections is responsible for inspecting and compiling information about deaths in jails but KyCIR reports it’s oversight has been limited at best.

Of 150 jail inmate deaths between 2009 and 2015 KyCIR reviewed, DOC’s explanation for the cause was ambiguous in over 40 percent of the cases. When some staff lapses or misconduct appeared to be factors — such as leaving a suicidal inmate in a cell with a sheet — there was little if any follow-up.

Wayne’s proposal stalled last session but he plans to re-file with revisions for the upcoming session. That would be a good first step.

But the new council, appointed last month by Gov. Matt Bevin to seek “changes that improve public safety and enhance the administration of criminal justice,” must heed the remarks of one of its members, Larue County Judge-Executive Tommy Turner, at its first meeting.

Turner pointed out that thousands convicted of low-level state felonies are housed in county jails at state expense. That discourages county officials from supporting sentencing reforms that could deprive their cash-strapped jurisdictions of revenue.

So state corrections officials are trying to figure out how to have fewer people in prison while counties rely on keeping the numbers high.

In 2006 then-Auditor Crit Luallen conducted an extensive study of the county jails, concluding that a unified corrections system operated by the state would be more efficient. There are enormous political and fiscal hurdles to creating a state system but Bevin’s council, legislators and others cannot continue to turn away from the time bomb ticking in county jails, some of which house twice as many prisoners as they have beds.

The Grant County jail will close. But it will not be possible to “enhance the administration of criminal justice” while jails continue to operate with little oversight or accountability.