Say Her Name: Justice for Gynnya McMillen & All Black Youth in KY

Kentucky Commentary

Gynnya McMillen

Gynnya McMillen

 Gynnya McMillen. A child. A young Black girl just 16 years old. Died on January 11th of this year. Alone, locked in a cell.

Like so many children growing up in families trying to survive systematic poverty and racism, Gynnya had a difficult and unsteady home life. She lived with various family members including her father for a while before his unexpected death in 2014.

Since July of 2015 Gynnya was living full-time at Maryhurst, a foster home in Louisville. Her relationship with her mother was rocky and fragile, but the two were undergoing counseling from the Maryhurst staff and Gynnya was expected to move back in with her mother soon.

In preparation for the transition back home Gynnya had been making a series of weekend visits to her mother 30 miles away in Shelbyville. The weekend of January 9th was one such visit, but during a late-night dispute Gynnya’s mother called 9-1-1. Once an officer arrived both Gynnya and her mother declined to speak to him, at which point he decided to needlessly arrest Gynnya.

Instead of taking her the 30 miles back to Maryhurst the officer needlessly drove 70 miles to the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown. Once arriving there around 6 a.m., after an extremely stressful night, in a strange environment, all alone, intake officers at Lincoln Village demanded Gynnya remove the one layer of comfort she might have had. Her hoodie. When she refused a martial arts restraint was used to pin her to the ground by 4-5 officers.

The Department of Juvenile Justice claims that all direct video of this incident “doesn’t exist” due to a “faulty camera”.

After this Gynnya was processed into Lincoln Village for the day. Went to bed that night. And never woke up as the protocols at Lincoln Village allegedly designed to “protect” her systematically and catastrophically failed.

When the “trained” staff of Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center finally noticed that Gynnya wasn’t breathing it took them over 11 minutes to even attempt CPR. According to the Department of Juvenile Justice Policy Manual every youth worker, in every Juvenile Detention Center, should be trained to respond within 4 minutes.

Permanent brain damage begins after 4 minutes. Within 10 minutes they’ll likely be dead. Yet “trained” staff waited 11 full minutes.

In the weeks and months following Gynnya’s death it was revealed that the ineptitude and negligence displayed by the staff at Lincoln Village was not a fluke, but the norm. No less than 6 employees of Lincoln Village are currently under investigation, with two of them already indicted, for a litany of misconduct and protocol violations in just the 28-hour period that Gynnya was at Lincoln Village.

According to Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley this misconduct includes: failure to perform the required 15-minute bed-checks, falsification of documents, and “unprofessional behavior” (mainly referring to a staff member eating Gynnya’s sandwich after she failed to respond).

That’s the problem, though, when you ask the powers at be to investigate their own wrongdoing. They focus on the micro-particulars, the individual actions and actors within a set situation. Ignoring the youth’s perspective, the actual victims, all together.

Tamika Dozier, how is now helping spearhead the Justice for Gynnya Campaign, was one such youth. She was locked up at Lincoln Village off-and-on in her teens for months and months at a time. Her experience was not the relatively rosy picture of just ‘failed bed checks’ and ‘falsified documents’.

Tamika’s time at Lincoln Village involved 23-hour lockdowns on a weekly basis in which they were only allowed outside their 6-foot by 8-foot cell one hour a day. There was no talking to other youth prisoners during that hour. 23-hour lockdown is a tactic pervasive in America’s Criminal Justice System, despite the fact that the United Nations has classified it as a form of illegal psychological torture.

Even when they were not under lockdown the youth were forced to endure an authoritarian, militaristic, and monotonous culture amongst the staff. As Tamika describes it, “You had to ask to do everything, you had to ask to scratch, you had to ask to sneeze, you had to ask to do everything. You had to raise your hand if you wanted to move at all. And when we were outside of our cells you sat at a chair next to your cell. And you read and you sat there.”

It does not take an expert in child development to realize this type of constant arbitrary authoritarianism and an environment deprived of social contact is not a good place for youth.

The male staff at the facility routinely sexualized the bodies of the young women, displaying “unprofessional behavior” that I haven’t seen the DJJ talk about anywhere. This included naked cavity searches by male staff on teenage girls, which Tamika endured. This included male staff bantering with local law enforcement entirely about the shape of Tamika’s body. This included rumors of rape by staff members that ran throughout the facility.

When I asked Tamika how often sexualized comments and acts were made by staff she responded, “Everyday. Everyday… Everyday. It was whether they were purposely asking you to do [things]. So that you have to bend over or bend down, or [the male staff would] come into your shower. Just anything. And they could right? Because they’ve got the power and they could say say whatever, and they could have you do whatever.

They still use words like ‘colored’. That gives you an idea. And that was the worst thing. I hated that. They were like ‘Oh, you’re such a pretty colored girl.’”

But the DJJ doesn’t want to investigate those things. They want us to believe the “few bad apples” narrative, instead of having us realize that the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

The DJJ doesn’t question the macro-level injustice that is young Black kids, and young Black women in particular, being funneled into incarceration. They don’t question if their own existence is fundamentally unjust.

Let us not mince words. Youth incarceration is brutality at the hands of the state. It robs children of the types of supportive, loving, and interactive environments they need and instead subjects them to authoritarian monotony and psychologically torturous conditions.

Youth incarceration is one more weapon with which White Supremacy is enforced. According to a 2015 report by the Kentucky Bar Association, Black youth are 2.5 times as likely as their White and Latino peers to be charged with a public offence; and are 4 times as likely to spend time in a secure juvenile detention facility.

Young Black girls and women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the country. Kentucky incarcerates women at a higher rate than 46 other states. That makes us the #3 incarcerator of women in the country.

Incarceration is not Justice. It is a form of colonized oppression that traces its lineage straight back to slavery. It is a weapon specifically designed to deal with Black and Brown people the only way the U.S. has ever known how; by robbing them of their agency, of their autonomy, of their community, and of their lives.

What, then, does true Justice for Gynnya look like? What does Justice for all incarcerated young Black girls, boys, and kids more broadly look like?

In my own opinion, it looks like a grassroots effort to end not only the conditions laid out above, but to end Youth Incarceration itself. To create a state in which, instead of locking up youth we provide them with the types of loving and supportive environments that can ensure they grow into healthy, happy, strong adults.

Meanwhile, the DJJ claims that Gynnya died of an undiagnosed heart condition, thus absolving them of much responsibility. They don’t even entertain the possibility that all the stress she endured as a result of her needlessly being locked up at Lincoln Village, her restraint by 4-5 much larger guards, could have aggravated that heart condition.

Releasing information in a piecemeal fashion for months now, the DJJ hopes to minimize the damage to their reputation. Minimize the number of people paying attention. Minimize our efforts to organize against their injustices.

But organizers from Elizabethtown, Louisville, Lexington and across the state aren’t going to let that happen. We are gonna keep fighting. And we want you to join us. To these ends, as a start, we are calling for Lincoln Village to be shut down. We dropped 193,700 signatures on Governor Bevin’s desk a couple weeks ago demanding as much. But there’s so much more to do.

If you want to help in the campaign to achieve Justice for Gynnya and all incarcerated youth, please reach out to me.

We need people willing to help with: Organizing; Legislative and Policy Work; Research and Interviewing; Fundraising; and Direct Actions.


Together, I believe that we will win.


Jordan E. Mazurek

Lexington, KY