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A second resignation in inmate death case [updated Wednesday]

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Update: Wednesday morning at 10:24: The N.C. Department of Public Safety announced this morning that five people have been fired in addition to the two resignations discussed in this story, for a total of seven correctional employees.

A second prison worker at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville has resigned after an inmate died while being transported to Central Prison in Raleigh for medical and mental health care.

N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker said Monday that the prison employee, whom she declined to name, was under department investigation after the death of Michael Anthony Kerr, a 54-year-old felon with a history of mental illness. The latest resignation comes roughly a week after another Alexander Correctional worker stepped down while under investigation. Walker said no criminal charges have been filed against those unidentified workers as of Monday.

Kerr was found unresponsive upon arrival at Central Prison on March 12 and resuscitation efforts failed, prison officials said. In the month prior to his death, Kerr had been held in solitary confinement in Alexander Correctional. According to his family, he was no longer taking his medicine and his mental health had been deteriorating rapidly inside the isolated cell.

"I think he died in that hole," his wife, Katrenia Robinson of Fayetteville, told the INDY. Family members who viewed his body said Kerr appeared to have been beaten or starved.

Prison officials did not say why Kerr was being transported from Alexander Correctional to Central Prison, although Kerr's sister, Brenda Liles of Sampson County, told the INDY that she had requested his transfer in early March, fearing his mental health was deteriorating inside the solitary cell. Central Prison houses the state's primary mental health and medical unit for male prisoners.

As of Tuesday, Kerr's cause of death had not been disclosed. An autopsy was conducted on Kerr's body at the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but it may be several months before the results are released.

In late March, the INDY contacted DPS officials regarding Kerr's death. Days later, Walker announced an "aggressive" internal investigation, more than two weeks after Kerr's death. On Monday, Walker said that probe is ongoing.

"We are devoting a lot of staff and time to get to the bottom of this quickly, but also carefully," said Walker. "It's not something that we want to rush, but we also want to get things back to somewhat normal, or at least what you'd call normal at a prison, as quickly as possible."

Walker said prison officials have also requested an independent investigation from the SBI, as well as the nonprofit Disability Rights North Carolina. Both probes were announced after the INDY questioned why no independent investigations were being conducted.

On Monday, Walker defended the time it took to launch the investigations, saying prison officials notified State Capitol Police—per prison protocol—immediately after Kerr's death was discovered.

She said a team of prison officials that included mental health and medical managers conducted a review a week after Kerr's death and reported their findings March 28, the same day DPS Secretary Frank Perry instructed staff to conduct an internal investigation, according to a timeline provided by Walker.

"Any situation is going to have its own variables," she said. "I can't say one way or the other, yes, you should have that decision (to conduct an investigation) within a week. It always depends on the circumstances."

Kerr, a Sampson County resident and a U.S. Army veteran, was expected to be in prison until July 2039. His criminal record in North Carolina was lengthy, including convictions for assault on a female, larceny and breaking and entering. Family said he had suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of two sons.

Inmate health records are confidential, but prisons nationwide use solitary confinement to separate mentally ill prisoners and problem prisoners from the general population, despite numerous critics and mental health experts who say it could exacerbate mental illness or even cause mental illness in inmates with no history.

North Carolina prisons have been under particular scrutiny. A blistering internal report in 2011 described torturous conditions in Central Prison, with accounts of prisoners with mental illness left unmedicated and ignored.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Central questions"

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