Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the deaths of Gynnya McMillen, a 16 year old Black girl from Kentucky, and Sarah Reed, a 32 year old Black woman from London, both of whom were found dead in state custody on January 11th, 2016. Though they were separated by more than 4,000 miles, the circumstances of their deaths remind us that the vulnerabilities facing Black women and girls occur across borders and nationstates, and that the deaths of women of color at the hands of the state is not just a US problem.
Gynnya McMillen was found dead in the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center after just one night spent at the facility. She had been detained the day before after a physical altercation with her mother while on a weekend pass from Maryhurst, the state’s oldest child-welfare agency. Gynnya, who had spent much of her childhood moving from one foster home or facility to another, had been living at Maryhurst since July 2015.
Investigation reports revealed that on the day of her death, Gynnya was physically restrained by facility personnel after she refused to remove her sweatshirt. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice said that the staff performed martial arts on her to ensure compliance. “The staff performed an Aikido restraint hold to safely conduct a pat-down search and remove the youth's hoodie,” the spokesperson stated. Gynnya, who had no previously known health conditions, was found dead in her cell the following morning. A subsequent investigation into McMillen’s death found that six detention center employees failed to follow a protocol requiring that she be checked on every 15 minutes, and that they falsified departmental logs after her death.
That same day, 32 year old Sarah Reed was found unresponsive in her cell at Holloway prison, where staff reported attempting CPR with no success. Prior to being put on remand to Holloway prison in 2014 -- which was unexpected and unclear in reasoning -- Reed was charged with grievous bodily harm with intent for striking back in self defense against a fellow Maudsley Hospital patient who sexually assaulted her. After receiving the charges, she appeared at Camberwell Green magistrates court, where she was placed before trial in custody at Holloway prison, an institution known for acts of self-harm among inmates and overcrowding. Two years prior to that incident, Reed had been violently assaulted by a police officer, who was subsequently fired, while being arrested for shoplifting.
In both situations, basic failures in accountability between agencies in the criminal justice system and social services led to the loss of life, and untreated trauma was met with physical abuse and criminalization rather than mental health services and care.
Gynnya McMillen and Sarah Reed are just two of many Black women and girls who have needlessly died while in detainment or in prison. We must demand justice in response to these cases and hold government agencies accountable for their failures to protect basic human rights. No longer can we allow Black women and girls to fall through the system’s deadly cracks.