Beleaguered Department Of Corrections Names New Commissioner
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Department of Corrections.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections has named Rodney Ballard, Fayette County’s jailer, as its new commissioner.
Ballard will begin his state job on March 14, replacing LaDonna Thompson, who has served as commissioner since 2008, according to three sources who requested anonymity because an official staff announcement was pending.
Ballard on Friday morning referred questions to the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which includes the Department of Corrections. A cabinet spokeswoman declined to immediately confirm Ballard’s appointment. The agency issued a statement Friday afternoon.
Ballard, a former state police officer, has run the Division of Community Corrections in Lexington since March 2012. In that capacity, he oversaw a 1,266-bed jail, the state’s second-largest. Before that, Ballard was the state Department of Corrections’ deputy commissioner for Community Services & Local Facilities.
In his new job, Ballard will oversee the operations of the state’s correctional institutions and a variety of community-based services. The agency has nearly 4,500 employees and an annual budget of about $500 million.
Thompson, who became the department’s first female commissioner when then-Gov. Steve Beshear named her to the post in 2008, could not be reached for comment Friday. The agency's press release notes she is retiring.
The DOC’s policies and practices have received scrutiny and criticism in connection with a series of stories last year by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and legislative initiatives resulting from those stories. The accounts detailed abuses in some of the state’s jails and lax DOC monitoring of those jails. (Read the "Trouble Behind Bars" series)
KyCIR found that the Department of Corrections often reached flawed or incomplete conclusions about how and why inmates die in the state’s jails. More than 150 inmates died in a Kentucky jail from 2009 through mid-2015, and the causes of more than 40 percent of those deaths were listed ambiguously in the DOC’s records.
At least several of those deaths appeared to have involved jail staff lapses, misconduct or indifference, but the DOC’s own findings and follow-up in those cases were sketchy or nonexistent.
The DOC does not appear to have sanctioned a single jail in connection with any inmate deaths that occurred during the 6 ½-year period.
Partly as a result of these findings, state Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville last week introduced legislation that would create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s correctional facilities, including jails and prisons.
Wayne referred to his proposal as a “sunshine bill” to remind officials “to be more vigilant in monitoring inmates.”
“According to evidence that has been presented, there are serious questions about how responsible the prison officials and jail officials may be in monitoring the inmates,” Wayne said.
The DOC says investigations of jail deaths routinely fall to law enforcement. But despite civil settlements, damning court opinions and an occasional criminal inquiry involving some of the state’s jails, there have been no recommendations by the department for more or better training of jail personnel.
KyCIR’s stories also detailed evidence of substandard jail health care, including understaffed and inadequately trained medical teams, causing or contributing to inmate deaths. However, there has been no tightening of state policies and procedures to ensure proper care -- despite the DOC’s motto that pledges a “safe, secure and humane environment” for inmates.
On Thursday, state Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville said he plans to hold hearings this summer on jail deaths associated with substandard health care.
The DOC released the following statement Friday afternoon:
Kentucky Public Radio's Ryland Barton contributed to this report. Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at email@example.com or (502) 814.6533.