‘Gynnya! Wake Up!’: In-Custody Death of Black Teen Triggers Fresh Concerns for Detained Juveniles

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Analysis Human Rights

‘Gynnya! Wake Up!’: In-Custody Death of Black Teen Triggers Fresh Concerns for Detained Juveniles

Kanya D’Almeida

In a year that started with such encouraging steps as the Supreme Court’s decision to extend a ban on mandatory minimum life sentences for juveniles, advocates are concerned about what Gynnya McMillen’s death could mean, not only for juvenile offenders but for Black girls.

On Sunday evening, close to four dozen protesters gathered outside the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County, Kentucky, chanting, “Gynnya! Wake up!” Participants told local television channels they had come seeking answers to the in-custody death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen, a Black teenager who was found unresponsive in her room on the morning of January 11.

Questions and silence have shrouded McMillen’s case for weeks. Few news outlets carried reports about the teenager’s mysterious death in the 44-bed facility operated by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Commentators who were tracking the story turned to a Facebook page created on January 15 by McMillen’s sister in a bid to share and receive information that would help the family piece together what had happened.

“My 16 [year-old] old sister died in custody of a detention center but they’re not giving out any info on how she was found and they’re saying [her] autopsy shows no cause of death. The news channels only played her story one time. We want justice and Kentucky isn’t giving it to us!” one post said.

The page has since racked up over 11,400 members as shadowy details coalesce into a more coherent story that reveals the willful negligence of staff at the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center.

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According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, McMillen was detained on the night of January 10, following an altercation with a parent at her home in Shelby County. Upon arrival at the center, McMillen was reportedly immobilized in a martial arts hold by “multiple staff” for refusing orders to remove her hooded sweatshirt or submit to what Department of Juvenile Justice officials called routine “search and photography” procedures. DJJ spokeswoman Stacy Floden told reporters that it was unclear whether or not the girl suffered distress or injury as a result of an “aikido” move being performed on her by several adults.

Lisa Lamb, director of communications for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, told Rewire in an email the staff undergo “Aikido Control Training,” which is a modified version of aikido that “incorporates only three controls to use the energy and force of the child to control the situation without harm or injury. Since strength of the employee is not a factor, only balance, injury to the child and staff is almost non-existent.”

Whether or not the aikido move caused McMillen injury, this CBS news report suggests that she was unresponsive during three separate staff checks the following morning, the first two involving “verbal” offers of breakfast and a snack, and a third when center staff asked if she would accept a telephone call from her mother. It was not until 9:55 a.m., when staff finally attempted to physically rouse her for a court appointment, that they discovered the girl was not breathing. It took staff nine minutes to call 9-1-1 and another two minutes before attempting to perform CPR on the child, who they say was found in a “sleeping position.”

In this audio clip of the 9-1-1 call released over the weekend by CBS reporter Graham Kates, a female nurse can be heard lethargically describing McMillen’s vegetative state to the dispatcher, who asks if the center has a CPR protocol. The staff member replies, “I’m new, I can find out, I don’t know.” The dispatcher then offers to talk staff members through the CPR procedure, to which the nurse replies, “No, you don’t have to do that.”

DJJ officials say they have conducted a preliminary autopsy that ruled out homicide or suicide, but McMillen’s family and supporters are demanding more concrete information, including the release of video footage from the girl’s room and answers as to why the 15-minute mandatory checks on detained juveniles required by policy do not appear to have been performed throughout the night.

Possibly in response to pressure from the community, Justice Cabinet Secretary John Tilley last week called for a longer, toxicology autopsy to be expedited, and commissioned his own internal investigation into McMillen’s death. But racial justice advocates say her death is symptomatic of a much larger, nationwide epidemic of violence against Black girls that can only be tackled through broad-based reforms.

From the trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw—who was recently sentenced to 263 years in prison for raping and sexually assaulting multiple Black women and one teenager—to the in-custody death in Texas last year of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, activists have been raising their voices to highlight the complicity of law enforcement in the assault and deaths of numerous Black women.

“McMillen’s case tells us what we’ve known for quite some time—that Black women and girls are targets of state violence,” Priscilla Ocen, co-author of a recent report on the overpolicing of Black girls, told Rewire in a phone interview. Pointing to the disproportionate rate at which Black girls are punished and policed in their own schools—in some instances making them six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts—Ocen noted that Black girls are thus more vulnerable to detention.

“At a basic level, Black children don’t benefit from ideas of protection and safety when it comes to the criminal justice system,” she said. “Just as we saw with the young woman in South Carolina who was literally thrown from her desk by a school officer last year, we also saw McMillen being subject to force for … very petty behaviors that are completely consistent with being a child. It’s part of a pattern of denying Black children a childhood and responding to everyday, completely predictable acts of childish defiance with what amounts to a life sentence.”

Juvenile Detention: Worse for Black Girls

The United States currently boasts one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the world, locking up more than 57,000 people under the age of 21 in 2012, according to data from the justice department’s most recent Juvenile Residential Facility Census, a survey covering 2,547 juvenile facilities.

These numbers belie the vast racial disparities that exist across the juvenile detention system, with Black children comprising 21,550 of the 54,148 kids locked up in 2013. With a youth incarceration rate of 605 per 100,000 population, Black kids are five times as likely to be detained as their white peers, whose detention rate is just 127 per 100,000. In 2013, Black girls comprised nearly half of female juvenile detainees (2,573 out of 7,727), the same year that the National Women’s Law Center revealed that Black girls were 20 times more likely to be detained as white female offenders.

While there is a dearth of state-level data, Kim Tandy, executive director of the Kentucky-based Children’s Law Center, told Rewire, “Racial disparities do exist at various contact points in the [juvenile] system in Kentucky, and should continue to be examined and addressed.”

She added that McMillen’s death also raises a red flag about certain practices like isolation, pointing to a need for reforms. “Simply put, no child should die in custody, especially not in a locked room in isolation,” Tandy said. “My concern given the limited facts that have been provided publicly [about McMillen’s case] is that this child died alone and in isolation, allegedly without the mandatory 15-minute checks. Room confinement for youth in custody should be closely monitored and used sparingly.”

Referring to President Obama’s recent executive order banning the use of solitary confinement for young offenders in the federal prison system, she said, “While this is intended to reduce the harm which comes from longer-term periods of isolation, the fact remains that even short periods of unnecessary room confinement can be dangerous. That’s what we should all learn from the death of Gynnya [McMillen].”

Studies have shown that Black juveniles tend to be more likely than any other ethnic group to be placed in solitary confinement, and in one facility accounted for 7 percent of youth subjected to isolation compared to 1.8 percent of white adolescents. While gender-disaggregated data is limited, experts like Ocen, who is an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, say that Black girls are “more vulnerable” than their white peers to punitive measures like solitary confinement and excessive use of force. The death of Natasha McKenna at the hands of officers in the Fairfax County Detention Center last February, details of which were captured on camera, stands as strong evidence for her claims. Like in the case of McMillen, deputies who were with McKenna at the time of her death did not call for help until 12 minutes after she lost consciousness due to repeated shocks from a Taser.

In a year that started with such encouraging steps as the Supreme Court’s decision to extend a ban on mandatory minimum life sentences for juveniles, advocates are concerned about what McMillen’s death could mean, not only for juvenile offenders but for Black girls.

“This is going to be an important time for us to elevate the stories of young women like [McMillen] who experience violence at the hands of law enforcement and to demand accountability … and visibility,” Ocen said. “We need to highlight these stories and connect them to contemporary and historic systems of exclusion and violence, and demand that not only political but also community leaders recognize and act when Black and brown girls experience violence.”

For McMillen’s family, which is still seeking answers, the nightmare is only just beginning. McMillen’s sister, LaChe Simms, told CBS News last week, “We have to hold ourselves together and be strong, but it still seems like it’s not real, like I’m going to wake up, and she’s going to come. Like someone’s going to say ‘cut.’ We want to know why she’s not here with us. We deserve to know, don’t we?”