State looks at third suicide – ABI reports still pending, inmates move to new jail

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A 35-year-old Harpersville man hung himself Thursday after spending two-and-a-half hours in the Shelby County Jail.

Corrections officers found Melvin Wade Harris hanging in a cell at the old county jail in Columbiana at about 11:20 p.m., sheriff’s reports stated.

The death at Shelby County’s old jail was the third suicide at the facility since May.


old jail was originally built for about 100 inmates but routinely housed up to 250, according to Capt. Chris Corbell of the sheriff’s office.

The original building was designed for 74 inmates but two modular buildings stretched total capacity, he said.

Jail officers and inmates moved into the county’s new $17 million jail Sunday night.

On Thursday, Mountain Brook Police arrested Harris on outstanding warrants from Shelby County. According to sheriff’s reports, charges against Harris were failing to appear on a traffic charge of driving with a revoked license and failure to pay child support.

A Shelby County sheriff’s deputy transported Harris from Mountain Brook to the old county jail for booking at about 8:45 p.m. Sheriff’s staff placed Harris in a cell by himself at about 10 p.m. A jail officer found Harris hanging during a check at 11:20 p.m., according to sheriff’s reports.

Two jail officers initiated CPR on Harris and Southeast Shelby Rescue responded. Rescue staff arrived and continued medical attention, sheriff’s reports stated. Harris died at the scene.

Sheriff Chris Curry responded in a written statement and with a press conference last Friday.

&uot;This is a tragic loss of life. There are not words to express our sorrow to the family and friends of Mr. Harris,&uot; he said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Robby Owens is waiting for reports from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation into four deaths this year connected with the jail. Owens will present the reports to a grand jury to determine if any wrongdoing was committed by the sheriff’s office or the county.

On May 8, officers found Kenneth Wayne Moss, 40, of Birmingham, hanging in a medical isolation cell in the jail.

On Aug. 3, officers found David Earl Lee, 37, of Wilsonville, hanging in the jail.

Last month, sheriff’s deputies released Clint Arlo Morris, 20, of Shelby,

to Shelby Baptist Medical Center. Morris later died from a staph infection.

Curry’s statement referred to other recent deaths at the jail.

&uot;Having had two other deaths in the jail in a very short space of time as we prepare to move into the new facility is very disturbing. Our employees are dedicated and professional, but they are struggling with the emotions generated by these difficult circumstances,&uot; Curry said.

Curry requested a fourth independent investigation by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation following Harris’ death last week. According to his statement, an investigator from ABI was at the jail Thursday night.

Owens asked for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to conduct an autopsy as well. So far, Owens said he has not received any reports from the ABI about pending investigations.

According to ABI spokesperson Doris Teague, the sheriff or district attorney must request an ABI investigation. She said an ABI investigation may include evidence from the Alabama Department of Forensic Science, as well as information gathered through interviews, observation and other evidence collection.

Teague also said that details from ABI investigation reports are not a matter of public record. She said the district attorney must determine whether to release the results.

On Monday, Corbell deferred questions about Harris’ death to ABI. He would not say whether the sheriff’s office requires hourly checks of inmates, citing possible security concerns.

&uot;We have standard operating procedures that corrections officers do mandatory checks,&uot; he said