116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids — Colleen Spencer and her family have been in mourning for over a year since her son, Travis Fulton, died by suicide July 10, 2021, in the Linn County Correctional Center.
Fulton had just agreed to plead guilty to federal child pornography charges after repeatedly insisting to Spencer that he wouldn’t.
“I live it every day. I live through it every day and ask why,” Spencer said of her son’s death. “I thought he was stronger than that, but I think they broke him.”
Fulton is one of seven people to die in the jail since 2020. Going back to Jan. 1, 2017 — a period of over five years — the rate of deaths of inmates in the Linn County Jail has been more than twice as high as the rates for Polk and Scott counties in the same period.
Some of these inmates died days, or even hours, after being locked up. Only one person was serving time on a prison sentence. Some, like Fulton, had pleaded guilty but hadn’t been sentenced yet, and others were still awaiting trials to determine if they were guilty.
⧉ RELATED ARTICLE: Families shocked by learning of loved one’s death in jail
When people are incarcerated, they no longer can see their own doctors or therapists and must turn their health and safety over to the agency in charge of the lockup. And when someone dies, it’s not just an inmate to the family. It’s someone’s son, daughter, mom, dad, grandpa or grandson.
“You’re correct in your assessment that seven seems like a high number,” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, whose responsibilities include running the jail, told The Gazette in an interview. “We think the same thing, but when you look at the cause of death and the situation while they were in custody, I’m not sure that we could have changed any of these outcomes.”
A Gazette review of the seven Linn County deaths showed:
- Linn County does not have an outside agency review deaths that occur in jail — unlike Scott and Johnson counties, which ask the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to investigate.
- Families of people who died in the Linn County Jail were not always told of the deaths in a consistent manner.
- Some families have concerns about how their loved ones died and are considering legal action.
- The State Jail Inspector did not have accurate information about the number of people who died in custody in Iowa’s county jails in the last five years — underreporting deaths in Linn, Polk and Woodbury counties
Number of deaths
The Linn County Correctional Center is a 401-bed facility run by Gardner, who has worked for the Sheriff’s Office since 1980 and was elected as sheriff in 2008, running as a Democrat.
The jail houses people awaiting trial and serving time for state, county and municipal offenses. The jail also houses overflow offenders from other counties and holds federal prisoners.
At least 39 people died in Iowa’s county jails from Jan. 1, 2017, to May 31.
Iowa’s Chief Jail Inspector Delbert Longley, who reviews investigation reports from each death, initially told The Gazette there had been 36 jail deaths statewide since 2017, but his breakdown of deaths by county only showed 33.
That list left out two deaths in Linn County, three in Polk County and did not include any deaths in Woodbury County — whose jail staff confirmed to The Gazette that one inmate has died in the jail since 2017.
Longley, who works for the Iowa Department of Corrections, is charged by law with doing unannounced annual inspections at each of Iowa’s 99 county jails and reporting to sheriffs and boards of supervisors about compliance with health and safety standards.
He did not respond to requests for an interview about jail death investigations or to explain why his office had incomplete data on jail deaths across the state.
“This information is acquired by the DOC from counties,” Corrections Department spokesman Nick Crawford said in an email, adding that counties must alert Longley within 24 hours of any death in their jails.
“The information we receive is only as good as what is provided from the county level. Mr. Longley works with counties to ensure they know and understand what information they are required to provide to him.”
Investigating a death
Michele Deitch, a distinguished senior lecturer and director of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs’ Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, said jail deaths are far more common nationwide than they should be.
“People should not be dying in jail,” she said. “Jails are some of the most surveilled environments. They are closed environments. If these things are happening, it’s an indication something needs to change.”
Deitch said jails or prisons should always ask another agency to investigate deaths behind bars to avoid conflicts of interest. That does not regularly happen in Linn County.
The Scott County Jail, a 392-bed facility where three inmates have died since Jan. 1, 2017, always asks the Iowa DCI to investigate jail deaths, Major Bryce Schmidt said.
“The DCI reviews their results with our County Attorney,” Schmidt said in an email. “We also do an internal review within the Jail/Sheriff’s Office to make sure that our protocols and responses were followed.”
The Johnson County Jail, a 117-bed facility that hasn’t had a death since 2014, also brings in the Iowa DCI, Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said.
Deaths in the Polk County Jail, with a capacity for 1,584 people, are — like in Linn County — usually investigated by the Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Ryan Evans said. Polk County has had 10 deaths since 2017.
“If the incident appears to have other contributing factors, such as an issue with the individual during the arrest prior to arriving at our facility, or not clearly defined as a suicide or medical issue, the sheriff can and will often elect to have the DCI assist with the investigation,” he said.
In the Linn County Jail, a Sheriff’s Office detective who does not work in the jail does the investigation, Gardner said. That detective is whomever is on call at the time of the death. Most detectives are familiar with the regulations of the jail because they started their careers there, Gardner said.
“If there was any criminal activity that was alleged was used by our staff, we’d call in an outside agency,” he said. “I’ve looked through all of these and I don’t think there was wrongdoing on our part or on behalf of the staff.”
Not on suicide watch
Linn County Jail staff includes a health services coordinator, six other nurses, including a psychiatric nurse, and two medical secretaries. The jail contracts with Mercy Medical Center and the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health for additional care.
Staff check on inmates hourly, day or night. Inmates on suicide watch are checked every 15 minutes. Staff monitor live video from surveillance cameras in cells and other areas, although some screens rotate through feeds from multiple cameras.
Gardner provided The Gazette with summary reports of the seven most recent death investigations after the newspaper requested the records. Two of the deaths were suicides, including Fulton’s on July 10, 2021, and that of Chad Lloyd on May 6, 2020.
Both died of strangulation, although they used different materials, Gardner said.
When people being booked in the jail acknowledge thinking about suicide or there are red flags, such as injuries consistent with a suicide attempt, jail staff follow a protocol that involves placing the inmate in a cell with a window to a staffed area and more frequent checks. If the people on suicide watch are combative, jail staff may place them in single cells.
Neither Lloyd nor Fulton was on suicide watch.
Fulton’s family still has questions about the way he died.
Spencer said her son hadn’t been taking medicine for attention deficit disorder in the early months he was in jail. Then he asked her to renew his prescription and bring in to the jail. Spencer said jail staff said her son couldn’t have that medication because it is considered a narcotic.
“The medication he was on, you can’t suddenly stop because it does give suicidal tendencies and depression and sleeplessness,” Spencer said.
Spencer said she wants to pursue a lawsuit against the jail, but after reaching out to at least 20 lawyers she has yet to find someone who is willing to take the case.
Linn County Jail Administrator Pete Wilson said the receipt of prescription drugs in the jail is determined on a case-by-case basis by the jail nursing staff in conjunction with Mercy doctors.
Typically if a medication is already prescribed when the person is arrested, and the prescription is up to date, it will be approved after it’s been run by a doctor, Wilson said. There aren’t any medications that are automatically denied.
Screening for medical conditions
Four of the Linn County Jail deaths were ruled medical deaths.
According to death certificates by the State Medical Examiner, Jacqueline Bridges, 59, and Marshall Mosby, 39, both died of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, Bridges on Oct. 17, 2020, and Mosby on Sept. 17, 2021.
Staff screen new inmates about medical conditions and each person gets a physical exam from the nursing staff after 72 hours, though Gardner said most people are released before then.
Bridges, who was arrested for theft five hours before she died, had heart problems that she reported to jail staff. She asked a jail nurse to check her blood pressure an hour before she died, saying she had pain in her jaw. The test showed a blood pressure of 130/80, the investigative report said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a blood pressure of 130/80 means a person has stage 1 high blood pressure, but is not in crisis.
Nurses trusted Bridges when she seemed satisfied with the reading, and she returned to her cell. An hour later, she was found unresponsive when a correctional officer went to get her because her bail had been paid.
Beasley, who was transferred to the jail as a hold for the U.S. Marshals Service less than a month before he died, was suffering in the days before his death, fellow inmates said.
He had been taken to Mercy twice but was returned to the jail both times, according to the investigation report.
Other inmates who were in the same block as Beasley told investigators they had been getting him water because he had a hard time leaving his bed, and that he hadn’t been eating.
One inmate said Beasley asked a deputy on the day he died if he could go to the hospital, but the deputy told him it wasn’t his call.
Mosby, who had been in the jail for more than a year on federal drug charges, also was showing signs of poor health the day he died.
Mosby’s sister, Yeye Oke-Stackhouse, said he had recently had a procedure done on his heart. In her last conversation with him, he told her he was still having chest pains, but that a doctor had told him the pains would go away over time.
According to the investigation report, jail surveillance footage from the day Mosby died showed him vomiting in the trash can multiple times. He didn’t alert deputies that he was sick, and eventually other inmates called for help on his behalf. Medical staff attempted lifesaving measures, but he was declared dead in the jail.
Oke-Stackhouse said she believes Mosby’s death was preventable, and she’s considered taking legal action but hasn’t talked with any lawyers.
“It has definitely traumatized us. We are still grieving tremendously because he died so suddenly, and we know one, that if he wasn’t in (the jail), he probably would still be alive and two, that he was probably alone and they didn’t really care about him passing. I’m sure that they didn’t do everything that they were supposed to do.”
Legal action considered
Gary Dickey, a Des Moines lawyer who specializes in personal injury and civil rights cases, said he’s been working with Hults’ mother, Cristy Caldwell, and stepfather, Chris Caldwell, to investigate Hults’ death but have not filed any court action.
“It would not be fair to say that we have committed to a lawsuit at this point, but I will tell you, all signs point to the conclusion that this was a preventable death,” Dickey said.
Hults was arrested March 23 on an assault charge. She died from complications of chronic substance use the next morning after spending the night in a cell with one other person, according to the investigation report.
Surveillance video showed she was restless throughout the night, hitting the call button in the cell several times, the report states. At about 12:45 a.m., she started moving suddenly while lying down, as if she was having a seizure or trouble breathing.
She then stopped moving and appeared to be asleep. Two more cell checks were logged before a corrections officer brought in another inmate around 2:15 a.m. and tried to wake up Hults, not getting a response. The officer called for assistance and started giving CPR. Hults was pronounced dead at the jail.
Hults’ family believes she was not properly screened for medical needs initially by police. She was arrested after her mother and stepfather called police because they believed she was having a medical episode that had to do with her mental and physical health, Dickey said.
“We are devastated at Malorie’s death. The heartbreak is with us every single day. We begged law enforcement to take her to the hospital instead of jail and our pleas were ignored. Our hope is that no family will ever have to go through the same heartbreak,” the Caldwells said in a statement to The Gazette.
Under Iowa law, anyone who is “obviously injured, ill or unconscious” must be cleared by a medical professional before being admitted to a jail, and Gardner said this is common practice in Linn County. The jail won’t admit an inmate believed to need medical attention until the arresting agency takes him or her to a medical facility to be examined and cleared.
Gardner said lawsuits are to be expected in situations like these, but he stands by his belief that the staff of the jail are not at fault.
“People can sue for anything, and certainly none of this is trivial. If I had a loved one that died, I’d be very concerned. If I had a loved one that died in jail, I’d be even more concerned. But it’s very clear to me … that we’ve done what we can to try to stop this from occurring to begin with and then try to rectify it when it does occur,” he said.
Sheriff considers scanner
There have been no changes at the Linn County Jail as a result of any of these deaths, but Gardner said he is working toward a change that could help prevent overdose deaths, like that of Ryan Bailey on Oct. 7, 2020.
Bailey was booked into the jail six hours before his death as a hold for the Lary Nelson Center, a Cedar Rapids work release center where he was serving time for a parole violation.
Based on a review of video footage, it appears Bailey sneaked drugs into the jail by hiding them in his anus, according to the investigation report.
The jail does not perform strip searches on incoming inmates unless the inmates clearly pose a risk to themselves or others, or have a previous drug or weapons charge. When a strip search is performed, the jail staff doesn’t touch the inmate but rather asks him or her to show different parts of their body.
“We could see if there’s anything on their person. The problem with that is we can’t see what is in a person,” Gardner said.
In order to address this, Gardner said he wants to purchase a body scanner similar those used at airports. The jail, built in 1984, doesn’t have space for a large machine, but Gardner said he’s working on plans for a remodeling that could include more space.
The state Corrections Department last year sought bids on a scanner for the Anamosa State Penitentiary to detect metal objects concealed in body orifices. The estimated cost was $11,000. Scanners that could detect non-metal items, such as concealed drugs, could cost more than $100,000.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; email@example.com