An inmate who was COVID-19 positive died in prison by suicide, the state says. His family is still searching for answers.

Just after noon on Nov. 6, Melinda McNabb received a call from a prison counselor at Clarinda Correctional Facility.  Her son, Christopher James Rios, an inmate serving decades for a burglary and robbery, had contracted the coronavirus.  

For McNabb, 52 and a mother of four, the news was worrying but expected: Coronavirus was peaking in Iowa’s prisons.

“I figured it was just a matter of time,” she said of her 28-year-old son’s positive test. He was one of 4,800 prisoners who have tested positive for coronavirus in the state's overcrowded prisons since the pandemic hit Iowa more than a year ago.

Five days later, on Nov. 11, she got another call, this time from Clarinda Deputy Warden Shawn Howard. Rios, Howard told her, had injured himself and was being taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City.  

Two days later, Rios, 28, was dead.  

"COVID, harmed, dead — all within a few days," McNabb said.  

A news release posted by the Iowa Department of Corrections hours after he died Nov. 13 gave few answers about Rios’ death. 

The questions of how and why Rios died still haunt his family. He was due for a parole hearing this spring and was making plans to live and work with his father. The family was told he killed himself inside a small phone room during a lockdown. Most of them are not convinced of that and have struggled to find answers from the often opaque prison system.

“The department works hard to prevent any suicides by those under our supervision," Iowa prisons spokesman Cord Overton said in response to Des Moines Register questions. "However, when such an event takes place, a thorough review by both a Medical Examiner and the department is conducted to learn the cause of death, and if more could have been done to prevent the incident, or if more could be done in the future to prevent similar incidents.”

McNabb and the rest of her family want any and all information about what happened to Rios, a skinny, sometimes-mouthy young man who had a history of run-ins with the law and had been in prison since he was 18.

Even before the November phone calls, McNabb, who runs a real estate compliance business out of her Iowa City home, took meticulous notes, jotting down details of every call from prison, the hospital — anyone — about her son. She time-stamped each note.  

But four months after Rios' death, the corrections department continues to deny the family all investigative materials.

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In March, McNabb was called to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in nearby Coralville to meet with Beth Skinner, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, and Clarinda Warden Stephen Weis, but the meeting did not give her the answers the family sought.

McNabb shared her notes with the Register, which also conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including medical and autopsy records, disciplinary records, lawsuits and letters. The Register's investigation sheds light on prison policies, Rios' death and the struggles of the family in the aftermath.

But the Department of Corrections denied many of the Register's requests for information, including access to video footage from cameras in the phone room where prison staffers said they found Rios listless before being taken to the hospital.  

What happened to Christopher Rios? 

On Nov. 11, as some of the inmates were playing cards in a common area of the COVID-19 section at the medium security Clarinda prison, officials called a lockdown, ordering prisoners back to their locked cells.

Rios, wanting to call his father, argued about going to his cell — so much that officers finally ushered him into a phone room for the lockdown.  

Rios was not on suicide watch, officials told McNabb, and a medical examiner's report shows nearly 40 minutes passed before Rios was checked on. 

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By the time prison staffers looked in on him, Rios was motionless, hanging in the room by a short phone cord, like those seen in visiting booths. He was unresponsive and had no pulse.  

No one administered CPR for 30 minutes or more, according to hospital records that show he went that length of time without oxygen. He suffered severe brain damage, hospital and autopsy records show. 

McNabb has pressed corrections officials and state and federal lawmakers for answers. The prison system probes the death of every inmate in its custody. She wants the system's investigative reports and video from the room where Rios was placed. She wants the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office, which has power to subpoena records, to investigate. 

The family of Christopher Rios poses for a portrait: Tony Rios, Melinda McNabb, Gary McNabb, and Brittany McNabb on Feb. 11, 2021 in Iowa City. Christopher died by apparent suicide on Nov. 13, 2020, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. His family challenges the official narrative.

She and the rest of his family want to know why it took so long for officers to check on Rios during the lockdown and to render aid. An inmate who was near the phone room has told the Register that Rios was calling for help and lashing out, and officers were nearby. 

The inmate said Rios was “yelling and screaming, pissed off like any young kid is after being punished.” That inmate was working in the area to sanitize it against COVID-19 and said he did not see Rios harm himself. The inmate asked not to be identified, fearing retaliation by prison officials. 

"I was gone for about 10 minutes, and I came back and sat next to his door for about 30 more minutes,” he said. "The whole time, the guards were just standing about 20 feet away."

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"No one here at Clarinda ever asked me what happened, to make a statement," he said.  "Nothing."

For Rios' family, the lack of transparency from the Department of Corrections and a three-month wait for the autopsy report only added to their doubts about the incomplete official narrative of what happened.  

Those who knew Rios well said he was planning for his future, getting ready for his parole hearing and had asked that pandemic relief funds be deposited for him to use when he got out.  

"I know that he died of lack of oxygen to his brain due to a ‘hanging,’ but how that happened in the custody of the DOC, I’m not sure how that could have occurred,” McNabb said. “I need the facts to make that determination.”  

Clarinda Correctional Facility, where Christopher Rios was an inmate, is seen on Feb. 28, 2021.

She added in an email: “I trusted the state to treat my son fairly for his crimes, but he paid with his death. Why? Covid, understaffing, overpopulation, etc.? He was 28 years old and had spent his whole adult life in prison and died there...FOR WHAT? "  

The Register sent a list of questions to Skinner and Overton. Questions included why Rios wasn’t checked on for about 40 minutes, whether he was alone in the phone room and if any staff or officers have been disciplined over Rios’ death.  

Overton replied that “the department is unable to disclose the information you have requested per Iowa Code 904.602,” which he said precludes the department from releasing any investigative findings.

Most confidentiality provisions in Iowa law give the lawful custodian of records the discretion to release records, said Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

"Typically, confidentiality laws are intended to protect the privacy of the individual. In this case it appears that the Department of Corrections, by refusing to release records about (Rios) to his family, is protecting the department, rather than the individual," he said.

Evans added that he doesn't see a clear reason why Rios' family is being denied the investigative report into his death. If there are security concerns, or investigative techniques the DOC does not want revealed, Evans said there are ways to get around that, such as redactions, and still provide the investigative file.

A battle against COVID-19 in an overfull prison

Rios was hardly alone in contracting COVID in prison. Most states had pledged early in the pandemic to ease capacity inside correctional facilities to stave off the spread of the virus and the disease, but many failed to follow through. Iowa decreased its inmate population, but most Iowa prisons remain overcrowded, with populations above their rated capacity.

On the day Rios allegedly hung himself, Clarinda’s inmate population was at 905, well above the capacity of 750. Today, Iowa’s prisons are nearly 10% above inmate capacity. All of Iowa’s prisons except one — the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville — are currently overcrowded. 

On April 1, 2020, nearly a month into the pandemic, Clarinda housed 1,022 inmates. The data shows the inmate population began declining during the pandemic, but never reached capacity or dropped below it. A year later, on April 1, 2021, Clarinda housed 960 inmates. 

Some Iowa prisons did manage to decrease prison populations, at least for a portion of the ongoing pandemic: The Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility briefly went at or below capacity in the summer and early fall months of 2020, but populations have since increased.

While the number of people paroled from Iowa's prisons rose in 2020 during the pandemic, Iowa is among at least seven states that did not dramatically increase the rate at which inmates' petitions for parole were granted, according to experts and a new brief by the Prison Policy Initiative.

That fact worries advocates as the pandemic continues to spread through the close confines of prisons.

When Rios died, he was housed in a solitary unit with other inmates who had tested positive for the sometimes deadly virus.

Clarinda Correctional Facility, where Christopher Rios was an inmate, is seen on Feb. 28, 2021.

"The health crisis required the coordination of a whole bunch of actors," said Bruce Western, the chair and a professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York. "The elected officials have to get involved, state legislatures had to act, there had to be readiness on the part of departments of correction to release people, and very little of that happened."  

The pandemic made the lack of transparency about what goes on inside prison walls more glaring, said Western, who is also co-director of Columbia’s Justice Lab.

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He said recordkeeping “was so uneven across the system” that most of the actions by states and local leaders were too reactionary. Very little was done to head off the crisis, and prisoners and their advocates have often complained of failures to address basic needs, such as the lack of sanitizer, soap and regular showers. 

"This was a situation where health agencies, which have been traditionally really shut out of prisons and jails, needed to play a leading role, an actor," Western said. "And that was not happening." 

The high walls of secrecy at the Iowa Department of Corrections

Why Rios was placed in the phone room, and whether he was put there due to overcrowding or COVID-19, Rios’ family may never know.  

"If you don't have anything to hide, then why don't you just give us the report so we can see for ourselves and make our own judgment on it," McNabb said.

Investigative reports into inmates’ deaths are kept confidential from the public. Grievances that inmates file — often the only way inmates can voice concerns about treatment and prison conditions — are generally kept confidential, too.

Evans, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said Rios' next of kin shouldn't be considered "the public." 

The public can often find out what inmates did to land in prison, or what they are allegedly doing wrong once inside. But finding out what officials or staff have done once the inmates are inside is often off-limits.

Margo Schlanger, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and leading authority on prison litigation and civil rights issues, told the Register that transparency in prisons varies by state.

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“When a person dies in state custody," Schlanger said, "there needs to be a way that their loved ones can find out what happened. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”  

The public may get a glimpse of what it's like behind bars through lawsuits. Currently, five inmates at the Clarinda Correctional Facility are suing the prison, the state of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Corrections, and the Iowa Board of Parole for "negligently exposing" inmates to COVID-19.

The inmates— Jack Hays, Joseph M. Barnes, Tavius King, Joshua Juengel, and Sylvester Campbell— allege inmates at Clarinda have been subjected to solitary confinement and segregation and denied access to family visitations along with numerous services, such as potential release programming, mental and physical health care and religious and educational services.

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The inmates claim they were put in situations where they would be exposed by other inmates and staff who move in and out of Clarinda.

In Hays' affidavit, he described being in a cell with two men who had contacted COVID-19 and were "very ill."

"I was threatened with solitary confinement if I did not move in with the men who were sick," he said, adding that he soon contracted COVID-19.

Prone to trouble and impulsive, Rios could also be caring

Growing up in Iowa City, Christopher James Rios was an impulsive kid, often getting into trouble. But he was also a very loving, generous child who had “a heart just as big as life,” said his father, Tony Rios.  

Christopher Rios was a wrestler at Iowa City High School and a caring young man with great humor, his family and friends said. But he also was arrested and spent time in a youth facility for minor and more serious legal problems as a juvenile.

"I'm not trying to justify or whatever, but at the end of the day … he was loyal, he loved his friends. He loved his family,” Tony Rios said. “But he was extremely impulsive.”   

Christopher Rios is seen in an undated high school photo. Rios was 28 when he died by apparent suicide on Nov. 13, 2020, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Slight in stature, at 5-foot-9 and about 120 pounds during his high school years, his family said Rios was frequently picked on — something that, mixed with his ADHD and impulsivity, added to a personality where “he had a feeling that he had to kind of defend himself,” said his father.  

Those traits lent themselves to more serious incidents as he aged. In 2008, when Rios was 16, he was charged with third-degree burglary on two separate occasions, one including fourth-degree theft and the other fifth-degree theft. Still a juvenile at the time, he was sentenced to a residential facility for both incidents, according to Iowa's online court document system. While juvenile records are not open to the public, the state system provides charges and sentencing information without releasing records. 

Then, on Dec. 17, 2009, when he was 18, he and another teenager robbed an Iowa City apartment with a loaded gun. They thought they were robbing a drug dealer, but when they found no drugs or money from drug sales in the apartment, the two teenagers stole video games and other electronics instead, according to Rios’ parents.

Rios, still 18, was imprisoned in August 2010. He was serving consecutive sentences of 25 years and 10 years for burglary and robbery, respectively. He became eligible for parole in 2016, and he tried to win reprieve yearly with no success. By the time he died, Rios had spent 10 years locked up.  

An inmate friend of Rios, Michael Coffman, described Rios as a talented artist.

"He was a happy-go-lucky guy, really intelligent and easygoing," Coffman said. "I think he really started to mature here lately."

The last time Rios was denied parole, in May of 2020, Iowa Board of Parole Chair Helen Miller attributed the decision to deny Rios' early release to the seriousness of Rios’ crime, his disciplinary history, his “general attitude and behavior while incarcerated,” and other issues, according to a letter from the parole board obtained by the Register. 

Rios was disciplined numerous times for both major and minor offenses, according to prison records. He had gotten into trouble for fights, smoking synthetic cannabis, making and selling homemade alcohol known as “hooch” in prisons, and tattooing.  

“I have made bad decisions, though I hope that in my mistakes now will be those of a citizen and not those of an arrogant law-breaker. I do not wish to live the life that I was, that of destruction and victimizing others. I do not want to be a criminal,” Rios wrote in a November 2017 letter to then-Iowa Board of Parole Chair John Hodges.

“It took many years to accept that I am here by my views and actions and attempting to justify my actions that hurt so many people,” Rios continued, but “I have changed … I am ready for a chance. I will succeed, I will be a citizen.” 

Christopher Rios was 28 when he died by apparent suicide on Nov. 13, 2020, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.

If only the parole board could see how big his heart was — or knew the Rios his friends and family knew — maybe he would have been released sooner, McNabb and Tony Rios told the Register.

They had a plan set up for his homecoming, whenever it would have happened.

Tony Rios had a truck ready, and a job lined up in construction for his son. The father dreamed of remodeling homes together and sharing those father-son moments they both had been deprived of for a decade.    

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McNabb, too, had dreams of spending time with her son, the way other families take for granted, like binging "Game of Thrones" together. Christopher Rios was a huge fan of the book series, McNabb told the Register. He never got a chance to watch the television version.    

He always had “Don Quixote-type” of dreams for himself, Tony Rios recalled, smiling at the memories.  Then his face quickly turned somber, the muscles relaxing into a familiar sadness, knowing those big dreams would never be realized.    

Nearly three months after her son’s death, McNabb showed Register reporters the last letter Rios had received from the Iowa Board of Parole denying his request for early release, dated May 19, 2020. 

As she held the letter, ripped in half — presumably by Rios — and taped back together, McNabb said she could feel her son’s desperation and frustration. Rios had received the same message from the board at least three times before: “The Board does not believe a parole is in the best interests of society at this time.” 

He’d have to wait another 12 months before he could make his case to the board again. 

"People have their breaking points, right? Maybe he did," McNabb said. "I don't believe that. I don't think it for a minute."

Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be contacted at eferkenhoff@gannett.com, or by phone at 847-400-4431.

Andrea Sahouri is a reporter for the Des Moines Register with a focus on social justice. She can be contacted at asahouri@registermedia.com, on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.