7 inmates die within 39 days at Bessemer prison

Alabama News

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

BESSEMER, Ala. (WIAT) — On Thursday, an inmate serving a life sentence at William Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer died, marking the seventh inmate death from the facility since early July.

On July 5, 27-year-old Jason Matthew Kirkland, of Valley, was found unresponsive in his private cell around 4:45 p.m. by prison staff. Less than twenty minutes later, Kirkland was pronounced dead at the facility.

According to Bill Yates, Chief Deputy Coroner in Jefferson County, an autopsy was performed on July 6, and results on July 22 ruled the cause and manner of death as accidental mechanical asphyxia.

Yates reported that Kirkland became wedged on his own volition in a small metal door typically used to pass food to inmates in the larger metal door of his private cell. The position he wedged himself into caused him to asphyxiate.

Ten days later, Devarrieo Montez Shepherd of Gadsden was found unresponsive in his own private cell by a corrections officer just after 6 a.m. At 7:17 a.m. on July 15, Shepherd, 33, died while serving a sentence for a 2005 robbery conviction out of Etowah County. An autopsy performed the next day found no evidence of trauma or foul play.

46-year-old Evans Lewis Butler Jr. was found unresponsive at 10:18 p.m. on July 18 in his bed at the facility’s infirmary where he was being treated for a natural disease. At 10:28 p.m., he was pronounced dead, and an examination performed the next day found no evidence of trauma or foul play. Butler, who was from Northport, was serving a life sentence for multiple charges out of Calhoun and Jefferson County.

At 2:38 p.m. on July 20, correctional staff found Mitchell Jerome Glenn, 57 and of Bessemer, unresponsive in the cell he shared with another inmate. Glenn was from Bessemer and serving a life sentence for a 1990 murder conviction out of Marshall County. An initial examination showed no signs of trauma or foul play.

On July 26, infirmary staff at the facility found Richard L. Edwards, 83, unresponsive at 9:30 a.m. Edwards, who was serving a life sentence for a capital murder conviction from Mobile County in 1988, was suffering from natural disease. There was no evidence of trauma or foul play.

Bobby Jack Welch, 46, was found unresponsive by facility staff on Aug. 7 and then taken to the infirmary. After an assessment, Welch was transported to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, where he died at 2:13 p.m. on Aug. 8. According to a coroner report, the nature of the death is undetermined but being investigated by the Alabama Department of Corrections – Intelligence and Investigations. Welch was serving a life sentence due to a 2010 conviction for rape in the first degree out of Russell County.

At approximately 3:35 p.m. on Aug. 12, 61-year-old Johnnie Lee James was pronounced dead at UAB hospital after suffering a head injury from a fall in a day area in WDCF the previous day. James was serving a life sentence for a 2002 murder conviction out of Russell County. Yates said he was unsure what precipitated the fall but that initial findings show it was from a standing position.

James’ death marks the seventh inmate serving at WDCF to pass in a period of 39 days.

Yates shared statistics with CBS 42 that indicate inmate deaths in 2021 are on track to match the number of inmates that died in previous years.

“As of 2021, we’ve had 16 deaths related to William Donaldson Correctional Facility… Last year there were 21 in-custody deaths from William Donaldson,” Yates shared. “On the thirteenth (of August) of last year, we had 14 deaths. We’ve had several this past month, but I don’t know if I’d say it’s an alarming trend.”

This year, four deaths occurred in February, while only one occurred in March and April respectively. Two deaths happened in May and one in June. Five deaths happened in July, and so far two have taken place in August.

Yates says that looking at inmates’ cause of death can show another aspect of stability.

“At this time, we don’t see a significant increase (in deaths) compared to this time last year or the previous years. The types of death we are experiencing seem to be what we’ve had in the past, which seems to be natural diseases,” he explained.

Of the 21 inmate deaths last year, there was one accident, one suicide, and two undetermined deaths while the rest of the inmates passed due to natural causes: “The remaining 17 (deaths) were natural,” Yates stated, “Which is common for us with William Donaldson. By far over the years (our inmates) are individuals middle age or older who have been incarcerated for some time and are being treated for significant natural diseases.”

According to Yates, 11 of the inmates who passed this year died of natural causes while the other five died of various reasons: “This year we’ve already recorded three accidents,” Yates said. “We’ve had one undetermined. We did have one homicide, which is rare.”

Since 1981, seventeen homicides have occurred with WDCF, which Yates says are infrequent. In 2012, the way the coroner’s office kept records changed, so Yates did clarify that a margin of error was expected. Any case left out, he assured, was not from outside influence though.

“I feel fairly confident that the data after 2012 is accurate. There could be cases omitted, not because of any outside influence but internally if we marked the database incorrectly” he said.

The Alabama Department of Corrections – Intelligence and Investigations are investigating the circumstances surrounding the inmates’ deaths according to coroner releases.

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