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Deaths In Alabama Jail Prompt Changes

Two people died in less than 90 days in Alabama’s Baldwin County Corrections Center. On May 30, 2006, at 11:30 p.m., Ross Paul Yates was found slumped over and unresponsive, in his cell, his hands cuffed behind him to a restraint rail on the wall. He was officially pronounced dead the next morning.

Restraint rails and “D-rings” were commonly used in the 600-man facility to restrain disruptive prisoners. Yates was fastened to the restraint rail because he “aggressively” kicked the cell door, said sheriff’s spokesman Lt. John Murphy. Yates was also suspected of being at least mildly retarded.

Lt. Murphy said that Yates had been cuffed to the rail for three hours. By policy, restrained prisoners are supposed to be checked every half hour. Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) is checking to see if policy was followed. The guard in charge at the time of Yates’ death has been transferred.

Coroner Huey Mack Sr., who pronounced Yates dead at 1:30 a.m., said that rigor mortis had already set in when he examined Yates. Rigor mortis takes at least four hour to occur.

“I can’t help but believe that something is not correct,” said Mack. “He had probably been dead for several hours just hanging on the wall.”

Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty says that she has received complaints, for more than a year, from prisoners who have been left standing for as long as 12 hours and cuffed so tightly their wrists would bleed. Others have urinated on themselves from being denied access to bathroom facilities.

“There seems to have been a pattern of leaving inmates on the rail for long periods of time without checking,” said Ms. Geraghty. “There are better ways to deal with unruly inmates.”

Geraghty sent a letter to jail officials on June 1, 2005 saying, “If these reports are true, jailers have violated inmates’ constitutional rights and exposed the jail and the county to legal liability.”

The warning went unheeded until Yates’ death. Since the tragedy some major and immediate changes have been implemented in the jail. Digital cameras are scheduled for installation to monitor prisoners and accurately record dates and times of disciplinary restraints.

Sheriff Johnson has also discontinued the use of all wall restraints. He will now use restraint chairs to deal with disruptive prisoners.

“I feel most comfortable in the direction we’re going by not using that D-ring,” said Johnson.

But Ms. Geraghty is not as comfortable that the changes were implemented in time. “We’ll be requesting documentation to follow up on exactly what happened to Yates. And we will do what we can to find out the cause of Mr. Yates’ death and whether it did have anything to do with the rail,” she said.

In March, Helen Diane Murphy was serving a 60-day sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol when she died in the jail. Her death was said to be health related and not due to physical injuries or restraints. 

Sources: Mobile Register: Associated Press

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