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Trouble Behind Bars is a months-long investigation into Kentucky jail deaths. We found preventable deaths that provoked little to no follow-up, as well as failures at all levels of government. Who is dying in your local county jail? Not even the state Department of Corrections has a true, accurate and updated accounting.

Federal Investigation Into Boyd County Jail A Rarity For Kentucky

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wired fence with barbed wires

The U.S. Department of Justice’s recently announced investigation into the Boyd County Detention Center is a rarity, only the third such investigation of a Kentucky jail or prison in the past 36 years.

But so far there has been no public disclosure of the basis for the federal probe.

A DOJ press release issued earlier this week referred only to broad categories of focus: whether jail inmates are protected from the use of excessive force, or subjected to “an invasion of their bodily privacy;” and whether the jail “indiscriminately uses restrictive housing without due process.”

Asked for more specific information about why it had initiated the investigation, a DOJ spokesman said “the department will decline to comment beyond our release.”

Boyd County officials didn’t shed any light either. Jailer Joe Burchett referred vaguely in an interview to “disgruntled” former employees complaining to federal authorities. Pressed to elaborate, he instead referred a reporter to a statement posted on the jail’s Facebook page that said nothing about possible reasons for the investigation.

“Although we are confident that DOJ's review will conclude that our facility's policies, procedures, and practices are compliant with federal law, we are prepared to do whatever is necessary to correct any deficiencies they may find,” the statement said.

Last June, a former jail employee accused Burchett of assaulting an inmate, according to media accounts. But local and federal authorities investigated the complaint and found no wrongdoing.

On Friday, Boyd Judge-Executive Steve Towler said he too knew nothing about reasons for the Justice Department’s investigation.

In a series of reports last year, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed myriad issues in jails across the state, finding preventable deaths and other abuses that provoked little to no follow-up, as well as oversight failures at all levels of government. Boyd County’s was not one of the jails featured in the reports.

The 206-bed jail is located in Catlettsburg, near the convergence of the Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia borders.

The Justice Department has a long-running, ongoing investigation of the Grant County Detention Center. The only only other federal civil-rights inquiry into a Kentucky jail or prison since 1980 involved the McCracken County Jail. That inquiry was resolved in 2001.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.