Family, activists remember woman who died in Anniston Jail

Birmingham resident Grace Ellis has used her late sister’s poems and journals to bring her back to life in the weeks that have passed since her mysterious death.

49-year-old Regina Ezell, of Anniston, was found dead on the floor of her cell in the Anniston City Jail Sept. 19.

Ellis said she knows little about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death and isn’t happy with the mentally-ill, “crazed” picture of Ezell that she said police have put forth.

That image doesn’t match the intelligent, passionate woman Ellis said she knew her sister to be.

Ezell was a writer, Ellis said, a woman who loved to write poems, journals, lists of daily goals and prayers.

“She wasn’t crazed, and she shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place,” Ellis said through tears Monday, as she stood outside the Anniston Police Department. “My sister was an intelligent woman who was very artistic. Her death was undignified.”

Ezell had lived in Anniston since 2001, when she moved here to attend Jacksonville State University, Ellis said.

Her sister graduated in May 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a concentration in print journalism. Ezell had planned to go back to school in January to earn a master’s degree but never got the chance, Ellis said.

A group of 15 people – including Ezell’s family, neighbors and others who didn’t know her but wanted to show support – gathered in front of the department Monday afternoon to protest corrections officers’ treatment of Ezell while she was in jail. Local activists with the New Order Human Rights Organization – an Atlanta-based group that recently founded an Anniston chapter – were also there to ask officers to provide more answers about what caused Ezell’s death.

“We want to uncover the deep, dark secret that lives inside the city and Police Department,” said Kathy Jackson, president of the local human rights chapter.

But Sgt. Fred Forsythe said he had no more details than what police have already provided to The Star.

Ezell had been in jail for eight days awaiting a court date on a misdemeanor criminal-trespassing charge, police told The Star during an interview three days after Ezell died.

Ezell was arrested Sept. 11 at the Cedars Green Apartment complex on Weaver Road after a resident complained twice to police that Ezell — who also lived in an apartment there — would not leave her property.

Court records show that Ezell’s bond was set for $300, but she refused to identify a relative who could pay bail.

Arresting officers became concerned that Ezell had mental issues because she was uncooperative during the arrest and claimed to be President Barack Obama’s mother, a police report shows. As a result, Ezell was first placed in an isolation cell at the jail, where corrections officers could monitor her on 24-hour video surveillance to make sure she did not harm herself, Lt Rocky Stemen said.

Later, when Ezell became more cooperative, Stemen said officers moved her to a regular, single-person cell in the jail. But after a few days, Ezell became disruptive again, according to police.

Stemen said he couldn’t elaborate on Ezell’s behavior but said it was alarming enough to cause jail officials to call the Calhoun-Cleburne Mental Health Board. A mental health worker evaluated Ezell Sept. 15. The worker could not engage Ezell in much conversation and set a later date for a more complete health exam, police said.

Stemen said Ezell was again moved to the isolation cell where she stayed until Sept. 18, the day before she died.

That day, officers were forced to move the woman back to her regular cell because they needed to use the isolation cell for an inmate with more immediate issues, officials said.

Randall Holder, another inmate in the jail on Sept. 18, said he watched as officers “dragged” Ezell past his cell back to her own. He told The Star he felt concerned then for the woman’s well-being.

“They had no right dragging that lady by her arms by all of us,” Holder said.

Stemen said he couldn’t comment on how officers helped Ezell back to her cell, only that it was necessary for them to “assist her there, because she either wouldn’t or couldn’t walk on her own.”

The next day, Ezell was found dead.

The death investigation is ongoing, and further details won’t be released until the state Department of Forensic Sciences finishes the autopsy report – something Forsythe said could take weeks.

Ellis said she has trouble believing that her sister was “crazed,” as she interprets the arrest report’s mention of Obama to mean.

“My sister had some issues, like all of us do, but I have a hard time believing they were as severe as portrayed,” Ellis said Monday but couldn’t elaborate specifically on what kinds of mental issues Ezell had or what medication she took for them.

She also said she doesn’t understand why Ezell wouldn’t bail herself out of jail, because she had enough money in her bank account to do so.

Neither Ellis nor Ezell’s four brothers, who also live in Birmingham, knew their sister had been arrested, much less that she’d spent eight days in jail.

“Was I shocked to find out she had died in jail? Absolutely,” Ellis said. “All I know is my sister was arrested, and eight days later, she died.”

During the vigil in honor of her sister, Ellis, her brothers and members of the human rights group lit black candles as a symbol of the secrets and unanswered questions surrounding Ezell’s death. Ellis sobbed as the 15 mourners walked back and forth in front of the Police Department, singing Christian hymns and holding signs that read “Regina Ezell: Closure to her name.”

A few police officers gathered in the department lobby to watch the protest through the station’s glass doors, but none came outside to speak with the protestors.

“I’m not here to blame the police, I’m just here for some answers,” Ellis said.

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