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Prison worker says excessive pepper spray may have killed inmate

A prison worker says the amount of pepper spray used was excessive, and that officers knowingly and intentionally put the inmate’s life in jeopardy.

Eddie Burkhalter

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It’s not yet clear what caused the death of 38-year-old Darnell McMillian after he was pepper sprayed inside an Alabama prison last month, but a prison worker says the amount of pepper spray used was excessive, and that officers knowingly and intentionally put his life in jeopardy.

Some time around 6 p.m. on June 22, three correctional officers placed McMillian in suicide cell S-11, with an inmate who was known to be aggressive and who was already on suicide watch, according to a prison worker with knowledge of the incident, who reached out to APR to discuss the death because the person said it troubled them.

The ADOC worker asked not to be identified because the person is still employed with the department.

“He shouldn’t have been doubled up with somebody,” the worker said of the aggressive inmate already in cell S-11. “It was very clear that the person in that cell was threatening.”

The worker said the officers enticed the two men to fight, and once the inmate began threatening McMillian, McMillian took the first swing to hit the man.

The three officers standing outside then deployed a pepper spray called Cell Buster into the cell, the worker said. Cell Buster is a potent spray used by correctional staff and produced by the Chicago-based company Sabre.

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“The inmate was yelling that he couldn’t breathe,” the employee said. “One Cell Buster is enough to do a lot of damage. There were three officers present at the time of this, and there were three cans of Cell Busters sprayed.”

The employee said that once McMillian was pulled from the cell, he was almost unconscious and then “went completely unconscious, because he was coughing and aspirating.”

The cell was then cleaned by inmates, except for some spots of blood, which the worker said might make it appear to have been a homicide by the other inmate, but the worker said several staff members at the prison believe the death may have been caused by excessive use of pepper spray.

“He was on his back when they were getting him to the infirmary, which can also cause asphyxiation, especially if he’s coughing and saying he can’t breathe. That spray can make you vomit,” the worker said.

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While there are video cameras that record each suicide cell, the worker said they do not believe there is footage from cell S-11 during the time of McMillian’s death. The employee said they’ve been through many incidents in the prison but that “this one seems pretty bad.”

The worker said it’s not clear why the officers encouraged a fight between the other inmate and McMillian, but from experience, the person said some officers will do so when an inmate angers them.

The employee said when they read APR’s first article on McMillian’s death, and there was little information on what happened, they decided to reach out.

“I’d rather share it and put it out there,” the person said. Some details of what the worker said were corroborated by the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.

Jefferson County Coroner Bill Yates told APR on Thursday that McMillian’s final cause of death awaits results from the autopsy, which can take between four and six weeks, but that there did not appear to be any external injuries that could have caused his death.

McMillian was pronounced dead at Donaldson prison at 7:49 p.m. on June 22, Yates said.

Yates, reading from his notes on the incident, said that in the moments before his death, there appeared to be a physical altercation between McMillian and another inmate, and that correctional officers used pepper spray to stop the fight.

“Obviously, Department of Corrections staff is going to step in to stop that, and it’s my understanding that after that, he was having complaints of not being able to breath,” Yates said. “I think they used — there was some pepper spray that was used to stop that, and he immediately went, from our understanding, to the infirmary.”

“From our autopsy, I don’t believe we found any type of trauma that would explain death,” Yates said.

His office is awaiting lab results, to include toxicology and other lab work to determine if drugs or an unknown medical condition may have been factors in his death, Yates said. McMillian didn’t have a history of any heart conditions, but Yates said lab results could reveal one if in fact he had a condition.

Asked if it’s possible to die from exposure to a large amount of pepper spray, Yates said “I haven’t heard of it, not to say it can’t happen.”

“I think you could pass away from extreme amounts of anything,” Yates said, but he’s never known of a death that resulted from large exposures to pepper spray.

Yates said there have been no reports to his office of any other inmate in that cell, or any ADOC staff, experiencing health problems as a result of the incident.

A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice on the use of pepper spray by police and corrections staff in North Carolina found that two cases of the 63 studied resulted in death from the use of pepper spray, and that both incarcerated persons who died had asthma. In only one of those cases, however, a large amount of pepper spray was used on the man, and the positioning of the man’s body may have been a factor as well.

“Pepper spray was used more times in this case than in any other, but according to police officers, it was ineffective. The subject, who was obese, was handcuffed behind his back and placed in a facedown position when being transported,” the report states. “The difficulty of breathing in this position may have been compounded by the damage already done to his airways.”

In June, a 35-year-old inmate named Jamel Floyd died after correctional officers at a federal prison in Brooklyn used pepper spray after he had barricaded himself in his cell. He was unresponsive when removed from his cell and prison staff were unable to revive him, according to CNN. The death was under investigation and the U.S. Marshals and the FBI were notified, according to a release by the Metropolitan Detention Center.

According to the Sabre’s own promotional video, Cell Buster is to be used in three-second bursts, with the correctional officer checking after each burst to determine if the “desired effects” have been produced, before using it for another 3-second burst. Cell Buster’s description states that the product “delivers pain, irritation, inflammation, coughing, temporary blindness and redness of skin.”

ADOC spokeswoman Linda Mays in a message to APR on Thursday said that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating all aspects of the incident.

“While we would like to address your questions and provide insight that would be helpful to you, at this juncture in the process we simply cannot provide information that would compromise the integrity of our ongoing investigation. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation into Daniel [sic] McMillian’s death,” Mays wrote.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Health

Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus

Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine. 

Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said. 

“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response. 

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval. 

“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations,  we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines. 

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In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain. 

“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily

While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill. 

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.

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“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.

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Tuberville looks forward to public service “probably for the rest of my life”

Tuberville’s term as senator will begin on Jan. 3 when the 117th Congress is sworn in.

Brandon Moseley

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Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville during an interview with Sean Spicer on Newsmax.

U.S. Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, told Newsmax’s Sean Spicer that he looks forward to the opportunity to give back to this country.

“After winning this and after being up here a couple of weeks and seeing how much of a difference we have made just to this point in the Senate has been gratifying,” Tuberville said. “I look forward to doing public service probably for the rest of my life.”

Tuberville said that he was 18 years old when the Vietnam War was coming to a close and then got into coaching so never served in the military and looks forward to the opportunity to give back to the country.

“As I went around the state of Alabama for those two years though I learned the respect of the people and how much that they want this country to remain the United States of America that we know and grew up in to go by the Constitution and those things. As I went through the campaign I got more and more fond of that I want to give back,” Tuberville said.

“I never served, I never gave back, but God was so good to me and my wife my family,” Tuberville said. “Giving back means so much to me after I was given so much for many, many years.”

Tuberville said that education will be a priority for him, getting education back to fundamentals like reading, writing, history and math. Tuberville said that unless the country gets back to fundamentals in education, “This country is not going to make it. We have got to get back to fundamentals and we are getting farther and farther every day.”

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Tuberville was the only Republican on Nov. 3 to defeat an incumbent Senate Democrat when he unseated Sen. Doug Jones.

“I want to be the voice for the people of Alabama,” Tuberville explained. “The previous Senator was a voice for his party, the Democratic party.”

Tuberville, a career college football coach, reiterated his position that we should play sports and send kids back to school despite the coronavirus global pandemic.

“I think we are doing a lot better in sports than we are doing in a lot of other areas,” Tuberville said. “I was keeping my fingers crossed back in August that we would let our young kids go play high school sports, number one, and then we get into college sports. There are so many people throwing negatives on why we should not do that. But I can tell you, you can see many more positives if we go back to school and we play sports. It’s important that we attack this virus as it has been attacking us. If it gives us an inch, we gotta take it.”

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Tuberville reiterated his opposition to shutting down restaurants, schools and businesses to fight the virus.

“We have to get back to everyday life,” Tuberville said. “You can’t keep shutting people down. Freedom is a power that we have. A power that we have earned because of our forefathers. We can’t give that up.”

Tuberville is an Arkansas native. He was the head football coach at Auburn University where he won an SEC championship, Ole Miss, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati. Prior to that, he was a national championship defensive coordinator at the University of Miami. He was also the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.

Tuberville’s term as senator will begin on Jan. 3 when the 117th Congress is sworn in.

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National

UAB cancels third game

The only remaining game on UAB’s schedule is a game at Rice on Dec. 12.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The UAB Department of Athletics on Thursday announced that it is canceling its final home game of the season. UAB was scheduled to play Southern Mississippi on Friday at Legion Field, but the game was canceled due to continuing problems with COVID-19.

UAB has said that it will “continue to work with Conference USA on the remaining regular-season schedule.”

The only remaining game on UAB’s schedule is a game at Rice on Dec. 12.

UAB currently has a record of just four wins and three losses.

A win at Rice would guarantee the Blazers a winning season, but in this COVID altered season, a four and three or four and four record is probably good enough to be bowl eligible.

Southern Miss has had a dreadful season. They are two and seven and have two remaining games, against UTEP and Florida Atlantic. Both of those games were postponed from earlier in the season.

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Unless the season is extended a week to the 19th, there is no way for UAB and Southern Miss to make up the canceled game.

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News

Official state Christmas tree was delivered

The approximately 35-foot tree will be displayed on the front steps of the state Capitol building.

Brandon Moseley

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The 2016 state Christmas tree in front of the state Capitol.

Alabama’s official Christmas Tree was delivered to the state Capitol this week.

This year’s tree was donated by Robbins Taylor Sr. It is an Eastern Red Cedar that was grown in Letohatchee, Alabama.

The approximately 35-foot tree will be displayed on the front steps of the state Capitol building.

The tree will be adorned with lights and decorations ahead of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Friday, Dec. 4. Gov. Ivey’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Capitol in Montgomery.

Alabama became the first state in the nation to make Christmas an official government holiday in 1836. Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870.

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