State Commission Says Neglect Caused Death of Pregnant Woman in Jail

Rachel Roth

The New York State Commission of Correction has issued a scathing report on the death of a pregnant woman in an Onondaga County jail, finding that competent medical attention would have saved her life.

For more on the case of Chuniece Patterson and the medical neglect of pregnant women in prison, read Rachel Roth’s article for Rewire, “Going to Jail Shouldn’t Mean Losing Your Rights…Or Your Life.”

The unprofessional conduct of Onondaga County Jail nurses and deputies cost a young woman her life, according to a report of the New York State Commission of Correction that was obtained by the Syracuse Post-Standard.

That woman was Chuniece Patterson, a 21 year-old African American jailed last November in Syracuse, New York. Patterson died of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, after repeatedly informing jail deputies and nurses of pain, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. Other women in the jail also notified the staff that Patterson was in obvious pain and needed help. None of the numerous encounters with nurses or deputies resulted in a proper medical evaluation. In her final hours, Patterson was told to “knock it off” and get up off the floor.

The report, which the newspaper obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, states that a nurse “provided grossly and flagrantly negligent and incompetent nursing care to inmate Patterson in that she completely misinterpreted and minimized the significance of pain and vomiting.”

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The Commission’s bottom line: “Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

The Commission recommends that the state Office of Professional Discipline investigate one of the nurses’ conduct and that the sheriff monitor both nurses’ performance, and recommends that the sheriff take “appropriate disciplinary action” against the deputy who ignored Patterson. The Commission also calls for the sheriff to review its policies on the treatment of pregnant women and for better training and supervision of jail staff.

In between the redacted passages, however, the report documents numerous instances where jail staff failed to follow existing policies and protocols, failures that had grave consequences.

Members of Patterson’s family have already expressed plans to sue the jail for causing her death. This report may give the county incentive to settle rather than have to defend its actions in court.

Click here for the Post-Standard’s coverage and to find a link to the Commission’s report.

Click here for my previous discussion of the case.

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.

Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”

When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.

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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.

A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.

Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures

Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:

Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.

While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.

As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]

In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.

Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.

In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.

March wrote in the Times:

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.

March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.

Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.

He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Times article that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.

Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.

Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.

“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.

At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.

Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.

From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence

Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.

In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.

Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.

It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.

Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.

At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.

Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.

Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.

In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.

“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.

“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”

They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.

The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.

“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”

They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”

CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”

Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.

This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.

Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.

CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.

“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.

CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.

“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.

“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.

In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.

In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.

“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.

The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement

The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.

“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”

Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.

His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.

Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”

Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.

In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.

Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:

My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?

“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”

Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.

“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.

Analysis Human Rights

‘Gynnya! Wake Up!’: In-Custody Death of Black Teen Triggers Fresh Concerns for Detained Juveniles

Kanya D’Almeida

In a year that started with such encouraging steps as the Supreme Court’s decision to extend a ban on mandatory minimum life sentences for juveniles, advocates are concerned about what Gynnya McMillen’s death could mean, not only for juvenile offenders but for Black girls.

On Sunday evening, close to four dozen protesters gathered outside the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County, Kentucky, chanting, “Gynnya! Wake up!” Participants told local television channels they had come seeking answers to the in-custody death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen, a Black teenager who was found unresponsive in her room on the morning of January 11.

Questions and silence have shrouded McMillen’s case for weeks. Few news outlets carried reports about the teenager’s mysterious death in the 44-bed facility operated by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Commentators who were tracking the story turned to a Facebook page created on January 15 by McMillen’s sister in a bid to share and receive information that would help the family piece together what had happened.

“My 16 [year-old] old sister died in custody of a detention center but they’re not giving out any info on how she was found and they’re saying [her] autopsy shows no cause of death. The news channels only played her story one time. We want justice and Kentucky isn’t giving it to us!” one post said.

The page has since racked up over 11,400 members as shadowy details coalesce into a more coherent story that reveals the willful negligence of staff at the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center.

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According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, McMillen was detained on the night of January 10, following an altercation with a parent at her home in Shelby County. Upon arrival at the center, McMillen was reportedly immobilized in a martial arts hold by “multiple staff” for refusing orders to remove her hooded sweatshirt or submit to what Department of Juvenile Justice officials called routine “search and photography” procedures. DJJ spokeswoman Stacy Floden told reporters that it was unclear whether or not the girl suffered distress or injury as a result of an “aikido” move being performed on her by several adults.

Lisa Lamb, director of communications for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, told Rewire in an email the staff undergo “Aikido Control Training,” which is a modified version of aikido that “incorporates only three controls to use the energy and force of the child to control the situation without harm or injury. Since strength of the employee is not a factor, only balance, injury to the child and staff is almost non-existent.”

Whether or not the aikido move caused McMillen injury, this CBS news report suggests that she was unresponsive during three separate staff checks the following morning, the first two involving “verbal” offers of breakfast and a snack, and a third when center staff asked if she would accept a telephone call from her mother. It was not until 9:55 a.m., when staff finally attempted to physically rouse her for a court appointment, that they discovered the girl was not breathing. It took staff nine minutes to call 9-1-1 and another two minutes before attempting to perform CPR on the child, who they say was found in a “sleeping position.”

In this audio clip of the 9-1-1 call released over the weekend by CBS reporter Graham Kates, a female nurse can be heard lethargically describing McMillen’s vegetative state to the dispatcher, who asks if the center has a CPR protocol. The staff member replies, “I’m new, I can find out, I don’t know.” The dispatcher then offers to talk staff members through the CPR procedure, to which the nurse replies, “No, you don’t have to do that.”

DJJ officials say they have conducted a preliminary autopsy that ruled out homicide or suicide, but McMillen’s family and supporters are demanding more concrete information, including the release of video footage from the girl’s room and answers as to why the 15-minute mandatory checks on detained juveniles required by policy do not appear to have been performed throughout the night.

Possibly in response to pressure from the community, Justice Cabinet Secretary John Tilley last week called for a longer, toxicology autopsy to be expedited, and commissioned his own internal investigation into McMillen’s death. But racial justice advocates say her death is symptomatic of a much larger, nationwide epidemic of violence against Black girls that can only be tackled through broad-based reforms.

From the trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw—who was recently sentenced to 263 years in prison for raping and sexually assaulting multiple Black women and one teenager—to the in-custody death in Texas last year of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, activists have been raising their voices to highlight the complicity of law enforcement in the assault and deaths of numerous Black women.

“McMillen’s case tells us what we’ve known for quite some time—that Black women and girls are targets of state violence,” Priscilla Ocen, co-author of a recent report on the overpolicing of Black girls, told Rewire in a phone interview. Pointing to the disproportionate rate at which Black girls are punished and policed in their own schools—in some instances making them six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts—Ocen noted that Black girls are thus more vulnerable to detention.

“At a basic level, Black children don’t benefit from ideas of protection and safety when it comes to the criminal justice system,” she said. “Just as we saw with the young woman in South Carolina who was literally thrown from her desk by a school officer last year, we also saw McMillen being subject to force for … very petty behaviors that are completely consistent with being a child. It’s part of a pattern of denying Black children a childhood and responding to everyday, completely predictable acts of childish defiance with what amounts to a life sentence.”

Juvenile Detention: Worse for Black Girls

The United States currently boasts one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the world, locking up more than 57,000 people under the age of 21 in 2012, according to data from the justice department’s most recent Juvenile Residential Facility Census, a survey covering 2,547 juvenile facilities.

These numbers belie the vast racial disparities that exist across the juvenile detention system, with Black children comprising 21,550 of the 54,148 kids locked up in 2013. With a youth incarceration rate of 605 per 100,000 population, Black kids are five times as likely to be detained as their white peers, whose detention rate is just 127 per 100,000. In 2013, Black girls comprised nearly half of female juvenile detainees (2,573 out of 7,727), the same year that the National Women’s Law Center revealed that Black girls were 20 times more likely to be detained as white female offenders.

While there is a dearth of state-level data, Kim Tandy, executive director of the Kentucky-based Children’s Law Center, told Rewire, “Racial disparities do exist at various contact points in the [juvenile] system in Kentucky, and should continue to be examined and addressed.”

She added that McMillen’s death also raises a red flag about certain practices like isolation, pointing to a need for reforms. “Simply put, no child should die in custody, especially not in a locked room in isolation,” Tandy said. “My concern given the limited facts that have been provided publicly [about McMillen’s case] is that this child died alone and in isolation, allegedly without the mandatory 15-minute checks. Room confinement for youth in custody should be closely monitored and used sparingly.”

Referring to President Obama’s recent executive order banning the use of solitary confinement for young offenders in the federal prison system, she said, “While this is intended to reduce the harm which comes from longer-term periods of isolation, the fact remains that even short periods of unnecessary room confinement can be dangerous. That’s what we should all learn from the death of Gynnya [McMillen].”

Studies have shown that Black juveniles tend to be more likely than any other ethnic group to be placed in solitary confinement, and in one facility accounted for 7 percent of youth subjected to isolation compared to 1.8 percent of white adolescents. While gender-disaggregated data is limited, experts like Ocen, who is an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, say that Black girls are “more vulnerable” than their white peers to punitive measures like solitary confinement and excessive use of force. The death of Natasha McKenna at the hands of officers in the Fairfax County Detention Center last February, details of which were captured on camera, stands as strong evidence for her claims. Like in the case of McMillen, deputies who were with McKenna at the time of her death did not call for help until 12 minutes after she lost consciousness due to repeated shocks from a Taser.

In a year that started with such encouraging steps as the Supreme Court’s decision to extend a ban on mandatory minimum life sentences for juveniles, advocates are concerned about what McMillen’s death could mean, not only for juvenile offenders but for Black girls.

“This is going to be an important time for us to elevate the stories of young women like [McMillen] who experience violence at the hands of law enforcement and to demand accountability … and visibility,” Ocen said. “We need to highlight these stories and connect them to contemporary and historic systems of exclusion and violence, and demand that not only political but also community leaders recognize and act when Black and brown girls experience violence.”

For McMillen’s family, which is still seeking answers, the nightmare is only just beginning. McMillen’s sister, LaChe Simms, told CBS News last week, “We have to hold ourselves together and be strong, but it still seems like it’s not real, like I’m going to wake up, and she’s going to come. Like someone’s going to say ‘cut.’ We want to know why she’s not here with us. We deserve to know, don’t we?”