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File Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dec 5, 2013— The Bradley County Jail is in Cleveland, Tenn.

The Bradley County Sheriff's Office has confirmed it found an inmate hanging in a cell of the county jail booking area Sunday.

Ralph Nelms, 41, of Cleveland, makes the third inmate to die while in the jail's custody this year. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation opened a case on the incident in accordance with a request by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump, who described their involvement as routine in matters of in-custody deaths. The agency declined to comment on the case.

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Ralph Nelms

On Sunday, two sources told the Times Free Press Nelms died in the booking area.

On Monday, sheriff's office spokesman James Bradford said in a phone interview that Nelms was found hanging in a booking area cell, but could not confirm whether other inmates were with him at the time of the incident.

"There's a lot of dynamics," Bradford said, citing movement of prisoners and other activities associated with booking processes.

Nelms was arraigned Thursday in a series of burglaries involving a body shop on Dawn Drive and several campers at a Spring Place Road business, according to the sheriff's office. Bradford said previously he has an appearance set in Criminal Court this month on other charges.

Last month, a state corrections inspector cited the jail for overcrowding, noting the facility's booking area regularly houses at least 40 inmates for extended periods of time. The booking area has not been certified by the state for inmate housing, according to the inspection, which also described the jail's security check logs, suicide watch observation reports and restraint checks as "very vague."

The Bradley County Jail — like other jails in the region — routinely suffers from overcrowding.

Capt. Gabe Thomas, who oversees the judicial and corrections division of the sheriff's office, temporarily called a halt to inmate intake on Aug. 18 due to overcrowding, telling a 911 warrants specialist that he had 75 prisoners in booking.

The jail, certified for 408 inmates, held 558 that evening, Crump said previously, citing a message from Chief Deputy Brian Smith.

Bradford said pretrial defendants make up the biggest portion of a jail population, which includes a fluctuating amount of federal and state inmates.

On March 14, inmate Hershal C. Dover, 53, died in a local hospital after he vomited, collapsed and stopped breathing in the booking area. Dover had been at the jail for two days.

The TBI investigation of his death has been completed and is under review by the District Attorney General's Office, according to an email from agency spokeswoman Susan Niland.

Crump could not be reached for comment Monday.

Niland confirmed the investigation of the death of inmate Billy Joe Rogers continues. Correctional officers found Rogers unresponsive after he got into a fight with another inmate on April 28. He died at Erlanger hospital on May 1.

In other business, the Bradley County Commission voted 13-0 on Monday to authorize a new agreement for the jail to house up to 100 male federal prisoners. The jail will now receive $58 per federal inmate per day, an increase over its current rate of around $47, said Richard McAllister, financial director for the sheriff's office.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@times freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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