Nearly three weeks after 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen mysteriously died in a Kentucky detention center, law enforcement doesn’t believe foul play was involved. The cause of death hasn’t been determined, and there are no signs of physical trauma. But dangerous errors were made between the time McMillen was last seen moving and when she was pronounced dead.
Last Friday, details were released about the time McMillen was brought to Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center for a domestic violence incident on January 10, and when she was found dead in a private room roughly 28 hours later. Surveillance video shows a staff member entering her room three times and leaving without physically interacting with the teen. There is no audio, but Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice Spokeswoman Stacy Floden says the employee offered food and told McMillen that she had a phone call. On all three occasions, the teen was unresponsive. Employees only discovered she was dead when a sheriff’s deputy arrived to take McMillen to court.
Authorities have also discovered that the employee charged with monitoring McMillen every 15 minutes failed to do so. But that wasn’t the only mistake made.
According to a dispatcher recording, nine minutes passed between the time McMillen was found “cold” and when the 911 call was placed. She wasn’t breathing, but 11 minutes passed before CPR was administered. The nurse on hand was unfamiliar with the detention center’s protocol.
Staff also used martial arts to restrain McMillen because she wouldn’t remove her hoodie. Upon her arrival at the detention center, McMillen was told to take off her sweatshirt for a search. When she refused to do so, she was confronted “by multiple staff… to ensure the safety of the youth and staff,” Floden told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KCIR).
Juvenile justice experts have slammed the detention center for not doing a more thorough check-in.
“If all they did was call out to her, I don’t know how they could have determined that she heard them,” Robecca DiLoreto, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University, told KCIR . “They’re entitled to go shake her and say, ‘let’s get up, let’s sit up.’ If they failed to have that degree of contact with her, they’re dealing with an unknown.”
Attorney and juvenile justice advocate Michele Deitch also believes that employees were negligent.
“If they said something and she didn’t respond, that should trigger something,” she told Crimesider. “I’d like more information. What does ‘nonresponsive’ mean? Seem like a lot of red flags about her behavior, and they were not engaging with her appropriately.”
Floden maintains that the employee who did enter McMillen’s cell followed protocol. “Her silence was consistent with her behavior and lack of communication with staff since her arrival,” she said. She also pointed out that kids are rarely woken up and McMillen wasn’t showing signs of distress.
McMillen’s autopsy was inconclusive, and investigators are waiting on a toxicology report.
No child has died in a state-run juvenile detention center since the 1990s, but McMillen wasn’t the first African-American woman to die mysteriously behind bars.
Sandra Bland’s death, following a violent traffic stop in Texas, sparked national outrage last July. Authorities ruled Bland’s death a suicide by hanging, but her family suspects there is more to the story. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August, claiming the officer fabricated a reason to arrest Bland, and that jail staff ignored her erratic behavior. The same month Bland was found dead in her cell, four other black women also died in custody.
Within the past year, McMillen, Bland, and countless others who have died behind bars have put a spotlight on the invisible plight of black women in the criminal justice system. At every point of contact with the justice system, black women are frequently harassed verbally and physically assaulted by police and correctional staff. But they are constantly overlooked by lawmakers and left out of important conversations about criminal justice reform.