Mother of inmate who died in prison says state has 'flat-out refused' to answer questions for over a year
Nearly 19 months after Iowa Corrections Department officials say Christopher Rios hung himself in a locked phone room at Clarinda Correctional Facility, details of the 28-year-old's death remain hidden from his family and the public.
"They have not been transparent," said Rios’ mother, Melinda McNabb. "They have never actually given me any information.”
The Iowa Department of Corrections has declined to release many of the details requested by either Rios' family or the Des Moines Register about his death on Nov. 13, 2020.
"They just flat-out refused to give me any information,” McNabb said. Rios, who was due for a parole hearing in the months after he died, had been in prison since August 2010 for burglary and robbery. He died after being rushed from the prison to a local hospital.
On June 1 of this year, McNabb requested an investigation by the state’s Office of Ombudsman into her son’s death. The office, an oversight body with subpoena power, has begun a preliminary review of McNabb's complaint, said Senior Deputy Ombudsman Bert Dalmer.
Videos show some of what happened to Christopher Rios
A video obtained by the Register in its investigation appears to show that correctional officers and staff failed to check on Rios for at least 40 minutes.
McNabb also received the video footage from Cedar Rapids civil rights attorney Dave O'Brien, who had threatened to file a lawsuit on McNabb's behalf against the department, claiming civil rights violations, she said. No lawsuit has been filed.
The videos — which have also been seen by the ombudsman’s office — do not include any audio. O'Brien had requested audio.
One video shows Rios, handcuffed, being walked into an office and speaking with an officer or superior. At times, Rios appeared animated, at other times calm and listening.
The video, which lasts for 8 minutes, 50 seconds and includes Rios and the officer walking out of the office, does not show Rios physically acting up.
A second video, which lasts for 1 hour, 10 minutes, shows Rios and the officer walking to a hallway that leads to the phone room. Rios appeared calm. In the video, his handcuffs were removed before he was placed in the phone room, which was then locked.
This video shows staff standing or sitting near the room talking with each other. Then — 43 minutes after he was first placed in the room — the video shows a staff member checking on him, unlocking the door and removing his limp body into the hall, where the staff tries to render aid.
"What stood out to me most was how many people were in that hallway walking by," McNabb said. "And no one ever — I mean, it was more than 30 minutes and then someone finally looked in the window."
The video shows that after another 22 minutes, during which it appears corrections staff attempted to give Rios emergency aid, he was lifted onto a stretcher. He was then brought to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where he died two days later, records show.
Hospital and autopsy reports obtained by the Register show Rios went more than 30 minutes without oxygen and that he suffered severe brain damage.
Corrections Department officials have said that no staff or officers were disciplined in the case, that an investigation has been completed but that it is shielded from public view under Iowa law, which creates a wall between what happens inside the state's correctional facilities and what the public, even family, can learn.
The department also cited privacy laws in answer to Register questions about whether there was video inside the phone room, whether medical attention was given to Rios before he left the phone room and whether Rios had ever been placed on suicide watch.
Through a spokesperson, both Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner and then-Clarinda Deputy Warden Shawn Howard declined the Register's interview requests about the incident.
"We are unable to accommodate your request for an interview," Corrections Department spokesperson Nick Crawford said.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the law corrections officials cited allows the state to keep information private but does not require it.
“It’s a convenient excuse to say, ‘The law doesn't let us release this,’” Evans said. “And that's not the case."
State law forbids officials from releasing some types of information — but gives them discretion to release others.
"The kinds of questions the Register has been asking, and the kinds of questions his family was asking are legitimate questions that deserve answers, and it's all too convenient to say, ‘Oh, the law, our hands are tied,'" Evans said.
Evans, who worked in Iowa journalism, including for the Register, for more than 40 years, said often the only way to get information out of the Department of Corrections is through a lawsuit.
"And right there that is a deal breaker for the vast majority of the people who might be seeking information about a loved one who was in custody, or for public policy advocates who are looking for information that would let the state or would help focus state officials' attention on what they ought to be changing about the the way the prisons respond to certain situations," he said.
McNabb may get more information about her son's death if the state Office of Ombudsman investigates further.
"We're an independent office, and we will look at it through objective eyes," Dalmer said. "Obviously, it's very serious, dealing with death. And we want to make sure that government wasn't to blame in some way. At this point, we don't really know what we've got, but we have begun a review."
Was Christopher Rios being disciplined? Officials' comments conflict with information from family, an inmate
Rios was not being disciplined when he was locked in the phone room, officials from the Corrections Department said via email in response to Register questions. Officials declined to say why he was there.
“(The) reason for Rios being moved is confidential pursuant to Iowa Code 904.602(10)," the email said.
McNabb, however, said she was told by prison officials that her son was being punished. She said she received that information during a meeting with Skinner and Clarinda Warden Stephen Weis in February last year.
"He was very much being disciplined," McNabb said. “Warranted or not, who knows, because they wouldn't release the information."
McNabb, a careful record keeper, said her notes from that meeting reflect that, as well as notes from her conversations with Howard.
“Shawn Howard told me that that day he had gotten in trouble for acting out, refusing the lockdown, saying that he wanted to call his dad," she said. Separately, she got a voicemail from an assistant ombudsman June 7 of this year, in which it says "he was being taken to segregation," McNabb said.
An inmate, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from prison officials, said that for 15 to 20 minutes, Rios yelled for help, banged on the phone room's door and demanded to speak with prison officials before his death.
“There was an argument between him and the unit (correctional officer),” the inmate said. "He wanted a dinner snack, and for some reason he did not get one... He got pissed off and wound up not locking down. So that is why he was taken off the unit and placed in the phone room — until they could find a place to put him. Because of COVID, the room he should have went to was full."
Meanwhile, McNabb continues to seek answers on what happened to her son, who, according to his father, had "a heart just as big as life."
She was supposed to get some of those answers in a meeting in March of last year with Skinner and Howard. That meeting was canceled whena nurse and a correctional officer were beaten to death at Anamosa State Penitentiary on March 23.
It has not been rescheduled, and she has not received access to the documents and other information she has long sought.
"I have never heard from them, ever again," McNabb said.
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest criminal justice reporter for the USA Today Network. Find him on Twitter at @EricFerk