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Man's Death While Held In PA County Prison Raises Questions

Michael Rubinkam
The Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is seen in this August 15, 2019 photo. The family of 21-year-old inmate Ty’rique Riley is raising questions about his July 1 death in custody.";

Carmen Riley bent over her unconscious son, looked into his eyes and knew. It didn't take a mother's intuition or a doctor's prognosis to figure out that Ty'rique was gone.

Several days earlier, 21-year-old Ty'rique Riley had been jailed after an altercation with his father. Now he lay in a hospital bed, his body covered in lacerations and deep, dark bruises. He was missing teeth. His kidneys were failing.

How did this happen? And who was responsible?

Seven weeks after his death, Riley's family and supporters are pushing for answers.

"This family's been kept in the dark. The first thing they want is answers," said their attorney, Riley Ross III. "If it turns out there was abuse that contributed to his death, then they want justice."

Authorities have said that Riley struggled with guards at Dauphin County Prison and became unresponsive after he was placed in a restraint chair, a device used to immobilize inmates at risk of hurting themselves or others. He was taken to a hospital June 26 and died there July 1.

The coroner has yet to rule on a cause of death. Photos taken at the funeral home and released by Ross show his battered body.

"He didn't go in there looking like that," Riley's mother said.

The case raises questions about how inmates are treated and cared for at Dauphin County Prison, a lockup in the Pennsylvania capital that houses about 1,000 people.

County officials say they don't tolerate abuse.

Brian Clark, Dauphin County director of corrections, said via email Monday that "we continue to work on reform of our correctional system. ... I can tell you we have a zero-tolerance policy for excessive use of force."

The reforms include training, he said, in "new use-of-force techniques with an emphasis on de-escalation."

Riley was an aspiring rapper who lived with his parents. They called him a good kid who didn't cause trouble. When his father suffered a series of heart attacks, it was Riley who tied his shoes and helped him up the stairs.

"He was always by my side, in my right pocket," said his father, Thomas Matthews. "That's my co-pilot, my navigator."

Riley had no criminal record before police showed up at his door June 18. In court documents, police said he struck his father in the chest, neck and back with a large sledgehammer in an "unprovoked attack" at their home around 4:45 a.m.

The family disputes that account.

Matthews said his son had heard noises outside, thought an intruder was lurking and grabbed a sledgehammer. Thomas, who had been sleeping, said he told Riley to put it away and go back to bed. Riley refused. Thomas said he tried to get the sledgehammer away from his son, took a hard fall and then had trouble with his pacemaker. That prompted Riley's mother to call 911.

As medics tended to Matthews, police officers put Riley in handcuffs and led him away, said Carmen Riley. It was the last his parents saw of him until June 27, when they showed up in court for Riley's preliminary hearing and were told to go to the hospital instead.

District Attorney Fran Chardo, whose office is investigating Riley's death, has said that Riley was placed on suicide watch at the jail but did not elaborate why. On June 26, he suffered some sort of medical problem, and jail staff determined he needed to go to the hospital. It was then that Riley became combative, Chardo told Pennlive last month.

"We're reviewing a great deal of video, interviewing everybody that we can to try to figure out what happened," he told The Associated Press on Monday. "We're investigating this to figure out whether or not a crime occurred. Whenever there's a suspicious death, that's the appropriate thing to do."

Surveillance video from the jail shows several guards dragging Riley out of his cell and putting him in the restraint chair, but the view is obstructed and it's unclear what exactly is happening, said Ross, who has seen the footage. Guards also spent about 15 minutes in Riley's cell before removing him, but there's no video of what took place, he said.

Ross added that Riley had no history of mental illness.

"Every day that goes by and we don't have results," Ross said, "I have less patience and I have less confidence that the right thing is being done."

Though there's been no official ruling on the cause and circumstances of Riley's death, Ross said it's clear his injuries were not self-inflicted.

Dauphin County was recently sued over allegations that guards at the jail's booking center and Harrisburg police savagely beat and kicked a man who had been arrested June 29 for public drunkenness, fracturing his orbital bone and inflicting "bruises and cuts from head to toe."

The plaintiff, Jarrett Leaman, was severely intoxicated at the time, offered no resistance and "did nothing to warrant the 'Lord of the Flies' violence he received," the suit said.

Two guards were suspended in the wake of the allegations. The jail has not said whether any staff members have been disciplined during the investigation into Riley's death.

In an interview with the AP, a former longtime guard at the jail said abusive correctional officers beat and withheld food from inmates they didn't like. The ex-guard said inmates were sometimes placed in solitary confinement to allow their bruises to heal out of view. The ex-guard spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by current jail staff.

Clark, the jail official, rejected those claims.