What Happened to Gynnya McMillen in Jail?

Gynnya McMillen had never been arrested before when she was taken to a Kentucky juvenile detention center. Hours later, the 16-year-old was dead, and no one will say why.

02.03.16 6:00 AM ET

Mothers are not meant to bury their daughters.

It has been just over two weeks since the family of Gynnya McMillen gathered in the pews of Fifth Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, to pray and weep over her casket, and nearly three weeks since the 16-year-old was found dead in a county juvenile detention center on Jan. 11. Officials in north central Kentucky said Gynnya simply died in her sleep and that there was no evidence of foul play.

A state investigation is underway, but the notion that she may have been killed by the very people sworn to serve and protect her is almost too horrendous to swallow. There is nothing simple about the way Gynnya died, nor should anyone readily accept that the death of an otherwise healthy teenager is anything but foul.

Gynnya wasn’t hit by a speeding car. She did not commit suicide. There was no suddenly rupturing brain aneurysm, and she did not have a heart attack.

Clearly, lethal harm came to Gynnya, and we should be able to identify and name it. Her mother deserves to know what happened to her child. She deserves to know what became of her daughter—from the moment on Jan. 10 that the teenager stepped into the squad car that took her to a detention center until her lifeless body was wheeled into a coroner’s wagon the next day.

We should not rest until someone answers for that.

Gynnya was locked up for roughly 14 hours in the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where she was sequestered alone in a holding cell, despite departmental policy. And as she lay alone and dying, videotapes reveal that facility staffers never performed the required physical checks overnight.

By 10 a.m. on Jan. 11, Gynnya was reportedly unresponsive when a guard attempted to physically wake her up. The detention center’s staff waited a full 11 minutes—and only after a delayed call to 911—before finally attempting resuscitation. There were reportedly no signs of bruising or trauma and no known medical issues, such as a heart condition, that might have hastened her death.

Reginald Windham, a 10-year employee with the center, has been placed on paid administrative leave for failing to check on Gynnya every 15 minutes as required for juveniles held in isolation. A state Justice Cabinet Secretary asked for an expedited investigation, including a full autopsy.

Little is known about what prompted her confinement, except that an alleged “domestic dispute” at her mother’s house on Jan. 10 resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge. Gynnya had been previously removed from her mother’s custody and placed at Home For Innocents, a residential group foster care facility for abused, abandoned, or neglected children in nearby Louisville.

The officers responding to the McMillen’s Shelbyville home that Sunday called a court-designee, who had the power to make legal decisions in cases involving juveniles. A local judge honored a request for detention.

Once in custody, Gynnya was not violent but purportedly refused to take off a hooded sweatshirt during a pat-down search. According to Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, officers “took her down” using an “Aikido restraint” move.

“The youth’s repeated refusal to cooperate with staff and remove her outer garment prompted the restraint,” a Department of Juvenile Justice said, by “multiple staff… to ensure the safety of youth and staff.”

The sweatshirt was ultimately removed. Gynnya was then searched and photographed.

However, the force used in this case defies every known public policy—for non-violent juveniles like Gynnya, it is recommended simply that they be segregated from others and talked through to a resolution. According to available reports, Gynnya never assaulted or attempt to assault any of the staffers.

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It was her first and last arrest. Gynna never woke up that Monday morning. She never saw the sun rise.

Save for a smattering of blog posts and a few local news stories, her name—Gynnya Hope McMillen—has escaped our national consciousness. Maybe it is because we cannot imagine ourselves in her shoes.

We cannot imagine dying over a sweatshirt. We cannot imagine what it might mean to be a black girl in Shelby County, Kentucky or in a largely white town with a population of less than 15,000. Maybe we cannot imagine ourselves neglected or abused and living in a group home. Or that someone might think so little of our lives that they would break department policy and not think to check on our welfare. Maybe it’s because we cannot imagine why somebody waited so long to call 911 or render medical aid.

Maybe it’s because we cannot imagine what it’s like to be left to die.