Cellmate says severely ill prisoner got no help from jail staff

Michelle Theriault Boots
Photo courtesy CJ Greeno

On the second-to-last day of her life, Amanda Kernak was shaking, vomiting and so ill she couldn't get up off the concrete floor of her cell at the Anchorage jail, but she got no medical attention or help from guards, according to her former cellmate.

"She was trembling. She was throwing up every five seconds," recalled Rachelle Hamilton, an Eagle River hairstylist and mother of four who says she spent most of April 8 in a cell with Kernak.

Hamilton had been jailed after missing a court-ordered anger management class.

"I knew that she needed medical attention. She mentioned she needed some kind of heart medication. Nothing was done."

Thirty hours later, Kernak was found dead at the Hiland Correctional Center, where she had been transferred. She was the second young inmate to die of unexplained causes in an Alaska jail during a one-week period.

The first was a 20-year-old mentally ill man named Davon Mosley. On April 4, Mosley died alone in a cell at the Anchorage jail. His death remains unexplained. State corrections officials have declined to provide any details about the death, saying an investigation is underway.

The deaths of the inmates have prompted their families to question the way the Department of Corrections cares for physically and mentally ill prisoners.

Kernak's family in the Southwest Alaska village of Kokhanok believes the 24-year-old was suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal in jail. She had developed heart problems in the months before her April 7 arrest for drunken driving and was on the prescription drug metoprolol, according to her sister Jennifer Wassillie.

Metoprolol can be used to lower the risk of repeat heart attacks or treat heart failure.

The family thinks Kernak asked for help or medication in jail and didn't get it.

"That's what I figure happened," Wassillie said.

The DOC will not release details about the death, citing privacy protections for inmates, but defended its care of Kernak.

"She was not ignored," Alaska Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaci Schroeder said. "I can tell you she was attended to."

The first stop for people being booked into jail is a health checkup, Schroeder said. If a person is too drunk, he or she is taken to the hospital to sober up and then returned to jail. Schroeder didn't say whether Kernak was taken to the hospital before jail because of severe intoxication, but charging documents show she had a blood alcohol content of .325 when she was arrested. That's four times the legal limit for driving.

Guards are supposed to regularly check on inmates in cells once they are booked. The holding cells at the Anchorage jail are adjacent to a medical area.

"If someone is in distress, the medical unit is right there," Schroeder said.

She said a person on the ground vomiting over the course of eight hours would be "enough to get one of our facility nurses to look at her."

Alaska's jails and prisons function as the only health care providers that many incarcerated people ever see. Nearly 6,000 inmates get services including dialysis treatments and tooth extractions from medical staff on a daily basis, wrote DOC health care administrator Laura Brooks in an email.

Their patients are some of the most medically fragile in society.

"Many of our inmate-patients come to us with multiple physical ailments further complicated by years of substance abuse and untreated mental illness," she wrote.

"For many, being incarcerated provides them with much-needed access to basic and necessary medical services."

Hamilton, the former cellmate, says she didn't see Kernak's distress taken seriously by jail staff.

She said the two were thrown together in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell in the holding area of the Anchorage jail at about 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 8.

Inmates spend time in the processing and intake area before being transported to longer-term placements. Prison records show that Hamilton did spend April 8 at the jail before bonding out about 6:45 p.m.

Hamilton said while Kernak was there, she was on the floor, leaning against a concrete shelf next to the built-in toilet.

"She kept saying, 'I had a heart attack the month before.' She was really sick."

Guards walked past the cell many times but did not offer help, Hamilton said.

Neither of the women asked anyone for help, Hamilton said. She said she felt intimidated by being in jail and Kernak was too sick. "We were locked in a cage," she said. "You're better off not saying anything in there or you'll get yourself in trouble."

The two talked.

Hamilton, 48, says she told the younger woman about her own battles with alcohol. A recovering alcoholic herself, Hamilton said she recognized the hell of withdrawal.

"I've been there. I know what it feels like. To see her that sick and nobody paying attention to her, it was really upsetting to me."

She contacted a Daily News reporter after reading the story of Kernak's death.

"This poor girl needed some kind of medical attention and she wasn't getting it."

In Kokhanok Wednesday, Kernak's family was preparing for her funeral and memorial feast.