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Lawyers allege Alabama inmates froze to death, and baked to death

FILE - A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., June 18, 2015. The head of Alabama's prison system said Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, that a protocol for using nitrogen gas to carry out executions should be finished this year. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
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FILE - A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., June 18, 2015. The head of Alabama's prison system said Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, that a protocol for using nitrogen gas to carry out executions should be finished this year. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

A lawsuit alleges a mentally ill man froze to death at an Alabama jail, arriving at a hospital emergency room with a body temperature of 72 degrees. That's according to a suit filed in federal court by the man's family. A separate suit alleges another inmate “baked to death.” And They say said he was kept naked in a concrete cell. They believe he was also placed in a freezer or other frigid environment. Thirty-three-year-old Anthony Don Mitchell died last month. He'd been held at the Walker County Jail for two weeks. An emergency room doctor wrote that he died of hypothermia. Lawyers representing the Walker County sheriff's office declined to comment amid the ongoing investigation into his death.

Mitchell had a history of drug addiction, was arrested in January after a cousin asked authorities to do a welfare check on him because he was rambling about portals to heaven and hell in his home and appeared to be suffering a mental breakdown. Jail video shows Mitchell was kept naked in a concrete-floored isolation cell, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit speculates that Mitchell was also placed in the jail kitchen's "walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment and left there for hours" because his body temperature was so low.

The lawsuit also accuses the sheriff's office of a cover-up. The sheriff's office issued a statement after the death saying Mitchell "was alert and conscious when he left the facility." Jail security footage provided to The Associated Press by lawyers for Mitchell's mother shows officers carrying Mitchell's limp body to a transport car, then putting him on the ground before placing him in the car.

The suit names Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith and jail officers as defendants.

Lawyers representing the Walker County Sheriff's Office said it could not comment before the conclusion of a requested investigation. The sheriff's office, following routine procedures, contacted the State Bureau of Investigation after Mitchell's death to ask for the investigation, according to a statement from Jackson, Fikes & Brakefield.

A photo of of Mitchell being arrested was posted by the sheriff's office on its Facebook page, adding that Mitchell "brandished a handgun, and fired at least one shot at deputies" before running into the woods. The photo shows Mitchell's face is painted black. According to the lawsuit, officers told a family member that Mitchell said he spray painted his own face black in preparation to enter the portal to hell. An officer told family members they planned "to detox him and then 'we'll see how much of his brain is left,' or words to that effect," according to the suit. According to the lawsuit, a doctor wrote in emergency room notes that Mitchell was "unresponsive apneic and pulseless and cold to the touch" when he arrived.

The allegations of death by hypothermia come as the state prison system also faces a lawsuit over the death of a mentally ill man who "baked to death" in an overheated prison cell. Thomas Lee Rutledge died of hyperthermia on Dec. 7, 2020, at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. Rutledge had an internal temperature of 109 degrees when he was found unresponsive in the mental health cell, according to the suit filed by his sister. It names prison staff, wardens and contractors as defendants.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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