For more than eight hours inside the Doraville Detention Center in August 2014, a life-or-death struggle raged inside Yoel Robton and across jailhouse video monitors.
Robton, arrested on a warrant for missing a court date on two relatively minor drug charges, fashioned a noose out of a 72-inch strip of torn bedding, hung it from the top bunk in his cell and left it there for hours as he paced, adjusted its length, tested its strength and contemplated ending his life.
At one point, the eight-hour video shows Robton sitting on the floor with the noose around his neck for more than 18 minutes, apparently attempting to use the weight of his body to kill himself. When it didn’t work, the 36-year-old Fulton County man took off the noose, crawled onto his bed and went to sleep for two hours with it still hanging from the bunk in plain sight.
Jailers with the Doraville Police Department never noticed Robton’s behavior, or the noose — despite departmental policy requiring them to physically check on inmates every 20 minutes, and keep a watchful eye on video monitors which captured his every move inside the cell.
One officer delivered Robton’s meal, apparently through a slot in the door, without seeing the noose hanging on the bed.
Finally, at about 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2014, Robton placed the noose over his head for the last time. He again sat on the floor, this time successfully cutting off airflow to his brain and lungs. Video shows him convulsing and sitting in an unnatural position for nearly 20 minutes before an officer burst into the room, untied the noose and began calling for help.
Robton was kept alive on life-support for about a week after the suicide attempt, until his family decided to remove him from the equipment and let him go.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained and reviewed the video from inside Robton’s cell, along with dozens of pages of documents related to an internal investigation of the incident, which found jailers did not follow departmental procedures meant to keep inmates safe.
The city entered into a $2 million settlement with Robton’s family in September — paid by insurance — and instituted some reforms at the jail.
Robton’s mother, Debra, said her son had never attempted suicide before but had a history of depression that likely played into his actions. She believes that leaving the noose in plain sight was a cry for help — he had been in jail for three days, and Doraville officers failed to administer his prescribed anti-depressant medication.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this did not have to happen,” Debra Robton said. “There were all kinds of errors made on their side. It certainly wasn’t on Yoel’s side. He was just sitting there. It makes me very angry … and so sad.”
Yoel Robton ‘a sensitive soul’
Rabbi Yossi Lerman met Yoel when he was 12 years old, in preparation for the boy’s bar mitzvah. The men became friends as Robton grew into an adult, and became very close over the past few years, meeting often to talk over coffee.
Lerman said Robton longed for someone to talk with and said he had been through a lot of difficulty in his life. He called him a “sensitive soul.”
“Super creative and talented people with extra sensitivity sometimes have a hard time in life,” Lerman said. “Yoel did have some encounters with the law and I think he felt they were unjust. He was very frustrated. But he loved his family, and he had strong roots.”
Debra Robton said her son had an electric smile and was always full of energy. He lived with his long-time girlfriend, Heather Altman, and helped raise her 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
“He was a pistol,” Debra Robton said. “He was playful. He was a teaser. He was hugger. There’s no words to say how much I miss his hugs. He was just a very loving, kind soul.”
Yoel Robton was also an entrepreneur. His company, Mainframe Plus, rebuilt and refurbished electronics.
Yoel’s sister, Carrie Tahlor, said he struggled with substance abuse, but had been sober for several years before falling off the wagon when their father died in early 2014.
“He was very close with my father and I think he had a really hard time dealing with that,” Tahlor said. “I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there. I think he viewed it as, it was one of those things where he felt like he couldn’t win. You put that with depression and not getting the medications he needed, and I think he just said: ‘I’m tired of this.’”
Robton made a string of bad decisions in the months before his death. He was arrested in April 2014 for DUI in Cobb County. Two months later, Fulton County police arrested him for possession of Xanax without a prescription and possession of marijuana.
It was those Fulton County charges for which Robton failed to appear in court, and led to a warrant being issued for his arrest.
On Aug. 15, 2014, Robton was involved in a minor car accident, which led Doraville police to discover the outstanding warrant and book him into the city’s jail.
Case prompts changes at jail
Jed Manton, the attorney who represented the Robton family in the lawsuit against the city, said Debra Robton initially approached his firm to get simple answers about what happened to her son. It took more than 23 months to get them because the city denied open records requests related to the incident, citing an open investigation by the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office that dragged on.
Once the video and police department’s internal investigation were turned over to the family, Manton said “the case resolved very quickly.”
“When you put people in a cell, there are basic things humanity demands be done — you’ve got to give them medication; you’ve got to check on their well-being,” Manton said. “It was a series of tragic decisions that led to this result. At a minimum, there were 15 different opportunities where they were required to go check on Yoel, any of which would have revealed a self-made noose hanging from a bunk.
“They didn’t take seriously the requirements of their job.”
There were two previous suicides at the Doraville facility during the past six years, in 2010 and 2011. Both of those incidents involved inmates hanging themselves with telephone cords.
A spokesman for Doraville Police Chief John King required the AJC to submit questions in writing, then did not answer them.
City Manager Shawn Gillen wrote that it is important for the city to continue operating its own jail to save officers’ time after making arrests, and because some prisoners can bond out more quickly than if they are held at the DeKalb County Jail. He said the city is “deeply saddened” by Robton’s suicide and “has taken action so tragedies of this nature can be avoided in the future.”
Those changes include:
- Purchasing new blankets that prevent ripping or tying knots.
- Removing top bunks so it is impossible to use railing as a tying-off point.
- Immediately transferring prisoners with mental health issues to the DeKalb County Jail, or a mental health facility.
Jail policies violated, investigation finds
An internal investigation into Robton’s suicide found that jailers violated departmental policy by not looking into his cell, and that officers didn’t even attempt to contact its nursing contractor to dispense Robton’s medication for depression.
Radio operator James Talley, who worked in the dispatch center the day of Robton’s suicide, told investigators that “the majority of cell checks are done by looking at video monitors, and only 10-15 percent were done physically,” according to the report.
And Lt. Ossie Parham, assistant to the administration division commander, reported to investigators that jailers repeatedly complained about the nursing contractor, Nursefinders, failing to answer calls or return messages from the jail. Parham said she forwarded those complaints to the top of the command chain with no effect.
“She sent an email to chief King, Major (Chuck) Atkinson and Capt. (Rodney) Brinkley expressing problems with Nursefinders and requesting a review of the contract,” the report says. “Parham advised that she has not received a response regarding this email.”
The city has twice entered into one-year renewals of the Nursefinders’ contract since the Robton suicide, and it remains in effect until Dec. 31. Gillen told the AJC that the city has also entered into a contract with a second health provider to supplement its coverage at the jail.
Nursefinders’ Georgia office declined to comment when contacted by the AJC.
Suicide a leading cause of death in jails
Nationwide, suicide has been the leading cause of death in local jails every year since 2000, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. In Georgia, local jails housed an annual average of 42,356 inmates from 2000 to 2013, with an average of 46 suicides per year, according to a recent DOJ study.
It’s a rate that greatly exceeds the general population, said Lindsay M. Hayes, a project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives who has researched suicides and suicide rates in state prisons and local jails.
Hayes said close-circuit monitors in jails are useful, but should never be viewed as an acceptable alternative to performing physical checks on inmates.
“Video tape recording doesn’t stop anything; it only identifies something and records it,” Hayes said. “There’s a mentality out there: We don’t have to do our checks because this equipment is monitoring it. That doesn’t work.
“This is a classic case (of) a suicide occurring because correction officials were not doing their job.”
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