Abuse and misconduct in Kentucky’s county jails inflict immeasurable physical and emotional damage on victims. They also are costly to taxpayers.
More than $52 million has been paid out during the past 15 years to settle legal claims involving Kentucky’s jails, according to an analysis of data from nearly all Kentucky counties.
Such claims typically are covered by insurance. Still, the public ultimately pays the bill for such things as insurance premiums, and some legal fees and investigations.
The two biggest jail-related payouts in Kentucky since 2000 involved class-action lawsuits filed by people who said they were strip-searched after being arrested for traffic violations and minor criminal offenses, according to data obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
One of the suits, from Jefferson County, resulted in a $9.5 million payout in 2001. The other, from Hopkins County, was settled for $3.46 million in 2008.
The millions of dollars in payouts can contribute to an increase in insurance premiums for counties, including their jails. The system is not unlike a driver’s experience with insurance: the more accidents one has, the more the cost of car insurance tends to rise.
All but a handful of the state’s 120 counties buy their insurance from the Kentucky Association of Counties All Lines Fund, a nonprofit company.
“Like all insurance, claims help determine premiums,” said KACo attorney Rich Ornstein. “So premiums paid by a county with a worse claims history, in theory, would be higher than those for other counties.”
KACo declined to disclose what any individual county pays for its insurance, on the grounds that doing so “would provide an unfair competitive advantage to KALF’s private-sector competitors.”
Tim Sturgill, KACo’s general counsel, would only say that premiums paid by county fiscal courts insured through KALF this fiscal year range from about $35,000 to $1 million.
One of the largest legal-claim payouts since 2000 involving an individual and a jail, $2.375 million, occurred last year. The estate of Larry Trent, an inmate who died in July 2013 following an altercation at the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Perry County, received the out-of-court settlement. Two jail deputies have been charged with manslaughter in connection with Trent’s death.
At least seven jail-related cases were settled for $1 million or more during the 15-year span.
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Several people who sued told KyCIR that their primary motive was not financial, but rather a hope to right wrongs or effect lasting reforms at a jail. And they said they derived little or no solace from the settlements they received.
“Money didn’t mean nothing,” said Charlene Morris, who settled a suit with the Bourbon County jail after her son’s death. “He’s gone now. No amount of money (is) gonna bring him back.”
Daniel Trimble had shown suicidal tendencies and tried to slit his wrists while in jail. Despite the warning signs, deputies placed him in an isolation cell with a bedsheet. He hanged himself in 2008.
Morris’ lawsuit eventually settled for $875,000, with the proceeds divided among various family members and lawyers. Morris said the money she received was of no consequence. She said she still longs for her son and sometimes weeps when she thinks about him.
Lawsuits sometimes are settled for their so-called nuisance value to minimize litigation costs and avoid the possibility of a big adverse jury verdict, “whether anything has been done (wrong) or not,” said Grant County attorney Joe Taylor.
“I tell anybody interested in running for jailer, ‘It doesn’t matter how good a job you do, it’s not if you’re going to get sued, but when,’” he said.
Not surprisingly, Jefferson County, by far the state’s largest county and the biggest jail, had the most jail-related legal settlements, 101, during the 15-year period. Less predictable is the fact that a much smaller jail, the long-troubled Grant County Detention Center, had 41 total settlements, which ranked third among the state’s more than 70 jails.
Grant County also has had three of the 11 largest jail-related lawsuit payouts since 2000; all three were in excess of $780,000. And the jail generated more overall payouts to settle claims, about $5 million, than any other jail of similar size in the state.
So far, however, the county’s insurance premiums have not increased significantly, Grant fiscal court officials said.
In the wake of security lapses and inmate abuse at the Grant County jail, KACo directed neighboring Pendleton County about a decade ago to remove its inmates from the jail or risk losing its insurance coverage, according to former Pendleton Judge-Executive Henry Bertram. The county complied.
Ornstein said no one at KACo recalled such a request. And he declined to say whether KACo has ever pressured Grant County, by threatening to increase its premiums or to cancel its insurance, in hopes of bringing about lasting change at the jail.
Beyond county costs, the federal government most certainly has incurred some costs for Kentucky jail misconduct. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating and overseeing matters at the Grant County Detention Center for more than a decade. DOJ attorneys and outside experts periodically have traveled to Kentucky to inspect the jail and confer with local officials.
That undoubtedly includes legal expenses, travel fees, rental cars, hotel rooms, meals and more.
At what total cost? A Department of Justice spokeswoman said that information “is not readily available.”
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.
Note: Data for 113 of 120 counties comes from the Kentucky Association of Counties, which insures jails in those counties. Jefferson and Fayette are self-insured and provided individual data. KACo does not serve Kenton, Pulaski, Laurel, Nelson and Muhlenberg counties. Data from those counties were not immediately available.