Bradley County, Tenn., agrees to pay children of man who hanged himself in jail

The Bradley County Jail, located at the Bradley County Judicial Complex.
The Bradley County Jail, located at the Bradley County Judicial Complex.

Bradley County is paying nearly $500,000 to two children whose father hanged himself in jail in 2016, ending a wrongful death claim in Eastern Tennessee's U.S. District Court.

Jail personnel knew 41-year-old Ralph Nelms was addicted, mentally ill and suicidal when he was arrested and booked for a string of burglaries on Sept. 15, 2016, according to Nelms' ex-wife, who filed a $5 million civil lawsuit in February 2017.

Instead of placing him in a suicide-proof cell, corrections officers put an erratic Nelms in a booking area, covered the window to his room and left him with his clothing straps, the lawsuit says.

As a result of Nelms' death, three officers were indicted on criminal charges of official misconduct, tampering with evidence and tampering with governmental records. Two were fired and a third resigned, Bradley County Sheriff's Office spokesman James Bradford said. Their charges are pending in Bradley County Criminal Court, clerks said Thursday.

photo Ralph Nelms

The settlement, approved Dec. 7 by U.S. District Court Judge Pamela L. Reeves, clears Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson and the officers - Gabriel Black, Timothy Jason Boyd and Ronald Joshua Reddish - of any civil liability.

It awards $475,000 overall to Nelms' children, ages 6 and 9, records show. Of that amount, $158,333 goes to their attorneys, another $3,730 goes to general expenses and Bradley County will use the remaining $312,937 to buy annuity plans for the children.

Nelms' ex-wife, and the childrens' mother, said she did not want any of the settlement funds. Their attorney, H. Franklin Chancey, declined to comment.

"Given the facts of the case and the applicable law, the court finds the settlement figure is not only reasonable, but is in the best interests of the minor plaintiffs," Reeves wrote.

Three people died in the Bradley County Jail in 2016, including Hershel Dover, a 53-year-old diabetic whose family said he didn't receive appropriate medical care behind bars.

Dover's family also filed suit in February 2017 against Bradley County, and the claim is ongoing, their attorney, Robin Flores, said Thursday.

Health care is a chronic issue in most jails.

But according to an August 2016 report from the Tennessee Corrections Institute, Bradley County's overcrowding and understaffing was so severe that male inmates were being housed in holding cells for weeks or months, sleeping on the floors.

A November 2017 inspection report showed the county jail resolved a host of its problems with overcrowding of male prisoners after a 100-bed workhouse expansion opened in July. The report noted two deficiencies: The women's unit was overcrowded, and the floors and walls in all nine inmate pods needed to be painted or sealed.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zack peterson918.

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