Family of inmate raises questions about his death

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) After an inmate died at the Pima County Jail this week, his family is raising questions as to why he was sharing a cell with a man facing murder charges.

Branden Roth, 24, was discovered by corrections officers on Wednesday with obvious signs of trauma. Roth's cellmate King Yates, 23, is now facing first-degree murder charges in Roth's death.

Yates is accused of killing his wife last year.

Court records show Roth took a plea deal on theft-related charges in early April and was in jail awaiting sentencing. Roth's sister Courtnie says her brother's death wasn't fair.

"He's done a lot of stupid things in his life, but he did not deserve what that man did to him," said Courtnie. "I don't believe he deserved a death sentence from that guy. At all."

Chief Byron Gwaltney, the commander of the corrections bureau with the Pima County Sheriff's Department, says corrections officers check on inmates every 15 minutes. Sometimes that may extend to every to 30 minutes, Gwaltney said.

"It's a tragedy," Gwaltney said. "We operate a large jail system with a lot of dedicated people focused on trying to keep people safe."

On average there are around 1,850 inmates being held in the jail, most of which are awaiting trial or in the pre-sentencing phase, Gwaltney said. Maximum capacity of the jail is around 2,000 inmates.

Inmates aren't separated based on the crimes they are accused of committing, Gwaltney said, but placed based on a classification system that takes into account things like behavior, possible mental health issues, and gang affiliation.

"We have specialists and different committees that focus on reclassifying our inmates," Gwaltney said. "That classification system has served us well for many years. It's comprehensive in it's approach and it allows us to move our inmate population around given the housing capacity that we have."

There was no indication from his time at the jail that Yates would be a threat to other inmates, Gwaltney said, and Yates and Roth have been in the same room for roughly two weeks. 

Roth and Yates were being held in a two person cell housing unit. There are also common areas where inmates can interact with each other. Gwaltney says the goal is to have as many inmates as possible in the general population area. 

"It allows for the normal human interaction, it allows for the ability to monitor their behavior," Gwaltney said. "It allows them to conduct themselves as normal."

As is the case with other major incidents, PCSD is conducting an internal review to see if changes need to be made. Specific details in the case are not being released pending that investigation.

Court records show Yates is a convicted felon and has had multiple run-ins with the law, including weapons and drug offenses. 

While Roth also spent time in prison, his sister Courtnie contends those charges were not for violence. Someone needs to be held responsible for her brother's death, she said, and she puts the blame on the jail.

"You guys didn't really do your job if someone's dead," Courtnie said. "I just want more answers. Why? Why did you guys let this happen? It's not right and now my brother is gone."

Gwaltney says records dating back to 1982 show there hasn't been an incident like this in the jail.

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