- Associated Press - Thursday, April 24, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A Kentucky lawmaker is pledging to hold hearings on prison medical issues after an inmate at a maximum-security facility starved to death on a hunger strike.

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said Thursday he will ask during committee hearings later this year for an explanation of the handling of 57-year-old James Kenneth Embry. Yonts also said he would look into prison funding, staffing and the hiring of medical personnel.

“This may represent a total failure of the medical system and medical providers at the prison,” Yonts said.

An Associated Press story this week revealed Embry’s hunger strike and death in January at the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Administrators fired the prison’s lead doctor, barred a contract nurse from working there and put two other medical staffers on leave while the state moves to dismiss them. The lead physician, Dr. Steve Hiland of Eddyville, said he was on vacation out of the country at the time of Embry’s death and never saw the inmate. He remains in private practice.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections asked the Attorney General’s Office to begin criminal investigation after The AP asked about Embry’s death. Embry had a little more than three years left to serve on a nine-year sentence when he died after refusing 35 of 36 meals and dropping 32 pounds in the last month of his life.

Yonts said no dates have been set for the hearings and he’s reluctant to call inmates to testify publicly in Frankfort.

“I don’t want any inmate retaliated against for being willing to talk to us,” Yonts said, not specifying who might wish to harm an inmate.

Yonts has taken up issues with prisons before. After a 2009 prison riot at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Yonts pushed to investigate claims that he inmates rebelled over complaints about poor food service by Aramark, a private contractor.

In Kentucky, corrections officers and others said a 2009 prison riot was provoked by poor food service by Aramark, state Rep. Brent Yonts, a Democrat from Greenville, said Monday.

A 2010 report by then-Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Crit Luallen identified food skimping, food safety issues and excessive billings and said Aramark refused to provide requested records related to its food costs, personnel costs and bonuses paid to managers.

______

Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP