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In January 2002, a letter arrived at Autry State Prison from the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Southern Center is a nonprofit law firm that files class-action lawsuits against prisons and jails with the hope to improve unconstitutional conditions. Its attorneys had visited Autry eight times in the previous two months, and they were perturbed by what inmates were telling them.
"We know that running a prison is a complicated and difficult matter, and we sincerely hope that we can resolve these issues with you in a constructive and amicable manner," the letter states. It goes on to spell out complaints inmates voiced to the attorneys:
"The overcrowded conditions and inadequate staffing make it difficult for the officers on duty to intervene effectively. ... According to several prisoners, correctional officers do not even try to break up fights or get involved when a prisoner is getting beaten. ... Prisoners placed in protective custody, isolation or segregation in the J-Buildings report that the prison's practice of double-celling in J-Building places them in serious danger of rape and assault, and that little caution is taken to make sure that known enemies or prisoners who are otherwise incompatible are not placed in a single cell together."
Lee died in J-Building less than a month after the letter arrived.
At close to 10 p.m. Feb. 6, 2002, two guards showed up at the J-2 side of J-Building to relieve the second shift. The third shift was considered desirable; inmates were asleep most of the time, so there were fewer chores and not so much attitude.
As usual, the arriving guards were briefed by those on their way out. There were 85 inmates in J-2 that night, the guards learned. That's the maximum number the cellblock was supposed to hold. Officer Jason Prietz took the top floor of J-2. Officer Hill would man the downstairs.
Hill, whom CL reached at home, says he doesn't recall anything out of the ordinary about the briefing. The second shift hadn't finished escorting inmates to the showers, he recalls, so he and Prietz would have to finish the job. That was typical. On an easy night, it takes several hours for the cellblock's only two guards to walk each inmate to one of six showers stalls, lock him in and walk him back.
Every 30 minutes, guards are supposed to break from shower duty and conduct a round of cell checks. The Department of Corrections mandates the 30-minute checks to make sure inmates in J-Building aren't hurting themselves or each other.
But on the night of Feb. 6 and into the following morning, Prietz wasn't making his rounds as often as he should have.
At about 1:30 a.m., an orderly named Eddie Lipscomb (no relation to the Department of Corrections spokeswoman) made his way to J-Building to help clean the cellblock and pass out breakfast trays. Orderlies -- inmates who've proved not to be serious risks -- assist guards in carrying out their tasks. Lipscomb noted in a written statement to prison officials that at 1:35 a.m., Hill and Prietz were still escorting inmates to showers. Another orderly, Jamie Ward, said showers continued until after 4 a.m.
That might explain why neither guard heard what inmate Kevin Boyd said he heard just after 2 a.m. "It sounded like something heavy being dropped, or being thrown down with extreme force repeatedly," Boyd wrote in a statement filed with the prison. "Then I heard someone yelling for the officer and for help."
Boyd was housed in cell No. 136, a downstairs cell under Hill's watch -- and almost directly below the cell Lee and Murphy shared. Boyd claims he asked Hill to tell whoever it was upstairs to be quiet. Hill replied "that he didn't know what was going on, but he had told the other officer to check on it," according to the inmate's statement. "This carried on for a few hours."
Prietz didn't check on Lee and Murphy from at least 2:10 a.m. to 4:10 a.m., according to prison documents.
In a written statement filed with the prison, Prietz said that when he checked on cell No. 235 at 4:10 a.m., both inmates were in their beds, Murphy on the top bunk and Lee on the bottom.
"At about 4:20 or so I heard a loud bang from the room," Prietz wrote. He says he returned to No. 235 and peeked through the steel door's small, square window. Murphy was standing by the window. He said he'd just jumped from his top bunk to use the toilet. "At that time I had seen a small amount of blood on his bed," Prietz wrote. "I asked where the blood came from. He showed me where he has stitches in the back of his head." It was an injury Murphy suffered in the days prior, Prietz noted.
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