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Overdoses, Riots, And Escapes Roil A Rural Kentucky Jail

The Boyd County Detention Center has been consumed in chaos, even as the DOJ investigates it. Now, the community is pinning hopes for reform on a new jailer.

The Boyd County Courthouse Annex and Detention Center in Catlettsburg, Kentucky
OZinOH/Flickr

Overdoses, Riots, And Escapes Roil A Rural Kentucky Jail

The Boyd County Detention Center has been consumed in chaos, even as the DOJ investigates it. Now, the community is pinning hopes for reform on a new jailer.


Early in the morning on Dec. 1, Charles Shaun Finley, 36, was rushed from the Boyd County Detention Center in Eastern Kentucky to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead from a suspected fentanyl overdose. “It’s been terrible,” said Finley’s niece, 34-year-old Laura Spreacker, who has also been incarcerated at the the jail. “The last time I was there was when a bunch of girls overdosed. That place is awful.”  

Finley’s death was the second in days and the third in six months at the detention center. On Nov. 29, Michael L. Moore, 40, of Ashland, Kentucky, was arrested for public intoxication and found dead 36 hours later sitting in a restraint chair. On Dec. 21, The Kentucky State Police charged five guards with first-degree manslaughter in Moore’s death. The State Police said that Moore was “highly intoxicated” when he arrived at the jail and that after he was placed in a restraint chair he was abused by the guards, which led to his death. In June, Laura Riley, 44, was at the jail for just two days before she died of acute methamphetamine intoxication. In recent years, several others incarcerated at the jail have overdosed, but survived.

“Each of these fatalities is tragic, but their frequency and high number in this particular facility is especially shocking,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.

An attorney for Joe Burchett, the Boyd County jailer who resigned last month, did not return calls seeking comment on deaths at the jail.

A DOJ investigation begins, but overdoses persist

Conditions inside the jail dominate the small county’s politics, with community members expressing concern about the health and safety of their loved ones inside. “It’s not a secure facility, if you ask me,” said Kaitlyn Cifaldi, a Boyd County resident whose diabetic mother was in the jail for a traffic violation when Finley died in December. “Over the night and throughout the day, she was given no insulin.”

The back-to-back deaths of Finley and Moore are the culmination of chaotic and tragic years at the Boyd County Detention Center in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, near the state’s border with West Virginia. Though the county has only about 47,000 residents, in 2017 it had the third-highest overdose rate among Kentucky’s 120 counties. A drug overdose death occurs on average every nine days in Boyd County. With few treatment options available in rural Kentucky, the detention center has become a place where people with opioid use disorder are locked up instead.

“With that high of an [overdose] rate, Boyd county is not only above the national rate but also above the Kentucky rate of overdose deaths, and even outranks the highest state rate (West Virginia at 57.8 deaths per 100,000 population),” said Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University who has studied the use of medications for opioid use disorder in Rhode Island jails and prisons.

In November 2016, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced an investigation into conditions at the detention center that would focus on “whether prisoners are adequately protected from the use of excessive force, whether prisoners are subject to an invasion of their bodily privacy and whether the jail indiscriminately uses restrictive housing without due process.”  The status of the DOJ’s investigation is unclear; DOJ did not return phone calls regarding the jail.

In April 2017, eight women overdosed on heroin inside the jail. In May, jail deputy William Alexander Mauk, 27, was arrested and charged for supplying detainees with syringes and methamphetamine. In June, Dianna Reynolds, a former employee at the jail, was awarded $75,000 in a sexual harassment case against her supervisor, Jeffrey Scott Salyer, who was accused of making “inappropriate sexual advances and statements,” which she said Burchett repeatedly ignored.

In July, four prisoners escaped through an unlocked fire exit; Burchett blamed a “design flaw.” Three escapees were found within a week, but the fourth wasn’t captured until a month later. Then, on Aug. 19, several people incarcerated incited a riot and set fire to the building. Those responsible for the riot yelled profanities about Burchett and blamed him for poor living conditions such as a lack of water, according to the Daily Independent. The jail was shut down after the fire and nearly 300 people were transferred to jails across Kentucky.

In September 2017, the detention center partially reopened. But as it was repopulated, the same problems returned. In December of that year, Commonwealth Attorney Rhonda Copley announced that Burchett was being investigated for malfeasance related to the constant problems that occurred under his watch.

Optimism greets the election of a new jailer 

Last year, on Feb. 20, a grand jury handed down an indictment against Burchett, 68, for willfully neglecting the discharge of his official duties as a public officer. During a March 9 arraignment, Burchett entered a not guilty plea. Problems at the jail didn’t end after his indictment: In July, the jail mistakenly released 37-year-old James Muth who had been charged with first-degree assault related to an incident at a supervised group home for parolees and people on probation that left a victim with serious head injuries. On Oct. 24, Burchett’s trial began in neighboring Rowan County; it was moved there because of extensive media coverage of the jail under his watch. The trial is continuing.

On Dec. 4, Burchett resigned from his post as head jailer, after the deaths of Charles Finley and Michael Moore. William Hensley, who campaigned on bringing order back to the Boyd County Detention Center, had already thwarted Burchett’s re-election bid weeks before. Because Burchett resigned before his four-year term ended, Hensley started his new job earlier than expected.

Hensley has removed nearly state inmates from the jail to address overcrowding and security concerns, according to local news reports. “Now is a good time to make some pretty major changes,” said Green, from Brown University. “Better treatment and more naloxone could be a life-saving change for this community.”

Many Boyd County residents are rooting for Hensley to succeed. April Brown, a friend and former roommate of Finley, who she described as funny and always smiling, said Hensley “is going to have his hands full” as jailer. “This position is going to make or break him,” she said. “I would love to see him shine.”