Families seek answers in pair of jail deaths

Michelle Theriault Boots

The families of Amanda Kernak and Davon Mosley don't know each other.

Each wants the Alaska Department of Corrections to explain how and why two young people -- one sick with mental illness, the other with severe alcoholism -- died in their jail cells within a week of each other this month.

So far, both families say answers from the state are coming slowly or not at all.

Kernak, 24, was arrested for drunken driving and spent less than three days in jail before she was found dead in her cell at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center on April 10. Her family said she'd been a heavy drinker for eight years and had recently developed a dangerous heart condition thought to be caused by her drinking.

On April 4, the body of Davon Mosley, 20, was discovered alone in a cell at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. His family says he suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The DOC is investigating both cases, said spokeswoman Kaci Schroeder.

But the Department does not see the two deaths as an indication of a larger failure to provide health care to inmates.

"These are two unrelated incidents, at two separate facilities with no similarities between their medical circumstances or housing status. So these incidents do not at all indicate a systemic issue with the Department's medical or mental health care," wrote Laura Brooks, the deputy director and health care administrator for the DOC.

Both families say unanswered questions remain.

"(We've been told) nothing. Not one word," said Alina Cobb, Kernak's aunt.

Kernak grew up in the Lake Iliamna area of Southwest Alaska, her older sister Jennifer Wassillie said. Kernak moved to Anchorage about a year and a half ago. Her family describes her as a bubbly, outgoing woman devoted to her family.

On April 7, she was arrested for drunken driving after a police office saw her straddling lanes and speeding east of downtown, her charging documents said.

Her blood alcohol content was .327. That is close to a level approximating the effects of surgical anesthesia.

Kernak had struggled with alcohol addiction for years, despite attempts by her family and friends to get her to quit, her sister said.

Court records note that Kernak couldn't be transported to court for her arraignment April 8 because she was "detoxing." The next day she was described as "berserk" in court documents. Her arraignment was again delayed.

By the early hours of April 10, she was dead. Guards found her unresponsive in a cell she shared with other inmates at about 1 a.m., according to the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.

Kernak's family says she suffered a heart attack less than a month before she died and needed medication with her at all times. The heart problems were thought to be brought on by alcohol abuse, her sister Jennifer said.

Her aunt and sister believe she was going through alcoholic withdrawal in jail. People withdrawing from serious alcohol addiction are medically fragile.

They want to know if she asked for medical care, and whether she got it.

"Did she ask for help with her heart problem?" Wassillie asked.

"I want to know why didn't they check her withdrawal symptoms," said Alina Cobb, Kernak's aunt. "She should have been in a hospital."

If Kernak was detoxing at Hiland, she was doing it in her jail cell.

"There are no in-patient detoxification facilities in the DOC system," Schroeder said. Medically supervised withdrawal from alcohol is provided on an outpatient basis at the jail's medical clinic, she said.

"If an inmate is showing signs of severe withdrawal, they will be transported to a hospital for in-patient detoxification."

The DOC oversees the "detoxification" of more than 3,000 inmates a year, Brooks said.

The department is also the largest provider of mental health services in the state.

Members of the family of Davon Mosley, a former resident of Bakersfield, Calif., and father of two sons, said they have not been told whether he was being treated for his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in jail, or if he was housed in a special unit for mentally ill inmates.

Initially, his mother Lorraine Mosley was told that an autopsy pointed to death from "natural causes." But they later discovered cuts and abrasions on Mosley's body. The family has hired an attorney.

The family also wants to know: Why was Davon Mosley in a jail cell on April 4 at all when the state of Alaska had filed to dismiss the charge against him more than a week earlier?

"I wish that was an easy answer," said John Skidmore, the director of the Department of Law's criminal division. "It's not."

It's possible that some other court order could have been the basis for continuing to imprison Mosley.

"Simply because we have filed a dismissal does not necessarily mean that a person is eligible to be released at that moment," he said. "There can be other factors that hold a person in custody."

But the department doesn't know.

The Department of Law, Alaska Court System and Department of Corrections are investigating, Skidmore said.

"Certainly we need to get an answer," he said.

It may be harder for the families and public to get other answers about Kernak and Mosley's deaths.

In the past, the DOC has refused requests for public records on the grounds that releasing such information could violate inmate privacy.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

State inmate deaths

• 2012: 11 in-custody deaths, 9 by natural causes, 2 suicides

• 2013: 8 in-custody deaths, 7 by natural causes, one unknown

• 2014: 3 in-custody deaths, 1 by natural causes, 2 pending autopsies

Source: Alaska Department of CorrectionsInmate deaths in Alaska

2012: 11 in-custody deaths, 9 by natural causes, 2 suicides

2013: 8 in-custody deaths, 7 by natural causes, one unknown

2014: 3 in-custody deaths, 1 by natural causes, 2 pending autopsies

Source: Alaska Department of Corrections