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Death behind bars: Corrections officials keep investigations shrouded in secrecy

Michelle Theriault Boots

For the families of inmates who die behind bars in Alaska, getting any kind of explanation from corrections officials usually takes a lawsuit.

Marie Beatty's ordeal began eight years ago this month, when she answered an early morning phone call.

A voice informed Beatty that her daughter, 39-year-old Jenny Gardner, had died in a cell at the Anchorage Jail. Thirty-two hours earlier, Gardner had been booked for drunkenly plowing her car into a boyfriend's vehicle.

Beatty is a 70-year-old, longtime Anchorage resident and mother of four who still carries a trace of her girlhood Brooklyn accent. She peppered the caller with questions.

Why had her daughter died? What had happened?

Beatty knew her daughter was a prescription drug addict and a drinker, but she was also young and strong. She took long walks and worked at a dry cleaning business, doing hard, physical work.

After eight years, a lawsuit and a $50,000 settlement with the state of Alaska, Beatty still doesn't know for sure how her daughter died, whether she suffered, or if she asked jail employees for help.

When a person dies in an Alaska jail or prison, the family --as well as members of the news media and public -- encounter a black hole of information called the Department of Corrections.

Getting access to jail records and investigation documents means navigating a daunting bureaucratic process that includes a trip to probate court and the filing of formal public records requests. Families and prisoners' rights experts say that without an attorney, those efforts are usually fruitless. Unless a family has legal counsel who moves quickly, the DOC may destroy crucial evidence, like video.

In Alaska, the Department of Corrections' own internal investigations -- the process by which the department examines whether its polices and procedures were followed in a death -- are inaccessible to bereaved family members or the public.

The state Department of Law justifies the secrecy by saying an investigation is conducted in anticipation of a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, and therefore the results of an investigation are "privileged" attorney-client communications not subject to disclosure.

The DOC does not even routinely notify the public of deaths in its facilities. The state Department of Public Safety does, in theory, but "there can be a variety of reasons why an incident doesn't reach the (public) dispatches, anything from investigative reasons all the way to supervisory approval and computer/technical errors," according to spokeswoman Megan Peters.

The result: Alaska jail deaths often go unexamined by anyone other than jailers.

Deaths become public if families choose to make them public or a tip to a news organization prompts a reporter to follow up. But a court case is almost the only place an official account of what happened inside locked facilities emerges into the public sphere. In most instances, families are left to piece together the story of how their loved ones died from second- and third-hand accounts offered by fellow inmates.

'OUT OF VIEW'

Two recent cases raised questions about how inmate deaths in Alaska are handled.

Davon Mosley, 20, was found dead alone in a cell at the Anchorage Jail on April 4, nine days after charges against him were dismissed. His family says the Bakersfield, Calif.-raised father of two suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. After receiving almost no information about the circumstances of his death, Mosley's family paid $1,500 for a second, independent autopsy and hired an attorney.

More than three weeks after Mosley's death, the DOC has not explained why he was imprisoned nine days after the only charges against him in Alaska were dismissed. The independent autopsy points to gastrointestinal bleeding from a cluster of ulcers -- possibly exacerbated by a manic state associated with bipolar disorder -- as the cause of Mosley's death, according to the family's attorney, Robert Campbell.

Less than a week later, on April 10, 24-year-old Amanda Kernak died in her cell at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. Kernak, a severe alcoholic from the Bristol Bay village of Kokhanok, had a heart condition that required medication, according to her family. After a tip to the newspaper prompted a news story, a cellmate called the Daily News to say that Kernak had been so ill that two days before her death she couldn't get off the floor of her cell. She received no medical attention from jail staff, according to the cellmate.

A corrections spokeswoman says the department is conducting an internal investigation into both cases. The results will not have to be made public, according to Kaci Schroeder, the department's spokeswoman.

"Internal investigations are conducted at the direction of the attorney general in anticipation of litigation and are therefore privileged and not subject to release," she wrote.

NO INCENTIVE

In 2012, the jail suicide of confessed serial killer Israel Keyes generated questions about how a high-profile detainee like Keyes, who was still being interrogated by the FBI in hopes of solving other homicides, had managed to slash himself with a razor and strangle himself with a bed sheet while under corrections department supervision.

Initially, the department refused to answer any questions about how the killer had obtained a razor. In a 2013 denial of a public records request -- justified on the grounds of protecting "prisoner confidentiality" -- the state said it wouldn't answer questions because the investigation had been prepared in anticipation of a lawsuit. No lawsuit has yet materialized.

Under public pressure, the department eventually disclosed a few details about the suicide, saying Keyes was "mistakenly" issued a razor. The department has not explained how the mistake was made, who made it and whether anyone was disciplined, though it will say that it now posts razor restrictions on the doors to inmate cells.

Schroeder said Keyes' death prompted the department to consider a new approach to disclosing information about jail deaths.

In the Mosley and Kernak cases, Schroeder said, the department will release a "basic summary of findings" from its investigation but not the actual report -- or any specific information it deems "confidential."

The other public agency that officially investigates jail deaths is the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, the investigative arm of the State Troopers. Bureau investigations are conducted solely to determine whether a criminal law was broken, said Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen.

A dead inmate's family can file a public records request through the commissioner of public safety's office to get the results of such an investigation, she said.

The Alaska Department of Corrections is not alone in its lack of transparency, said Lori Rifkin, a civil rights attorney who specializes in prison issues.

Rifkin practices in California and does not represent any families in Alaska. In general, she said, families trying to find out the details of in-custody deaths face a Catch-22: "Often the only way to get information is a lawsuit, and the only way to bring a lawsuit is to at least have some information."

Corrections authorities have no incentive to share records, Rifkin said.

"As long as the DOC can keep all the details hidden, they are able to avoid accountability for anything that went wrong and keep the family from ever knowing."

That lack of transparency is troubling, said Campbell, the former Mat-Su prosecutor and Barrow police officer who represents the Mosley family.

"Any group that can take away the freedom of other people has to be held to high standards," Campbell said, "and the Department of Corrections is clearly failing."

'THE BLINK OF AN EYE'

Jenny Gardner grew up in Anchorage, the daughter of Navy man turned banker and Beatty, a homemaker and phone company worker who followed her husband to Alaska in the 1960s.

Jenny was the eldest of four children. Her upbringing was a steady, middle-class one, her mother said.

"Jenny was my little helper," Beatty recalled.

Gardner graduated from East High and seemed poised for success: she was a natural saleswoman and at one point was the top seller in the Anchorage Nordstrom's teen department.

Prescription pills were her downfall, her mother said. She sweet-talked doctors into prescribing narcotics for back pain. Soon she was hooked. Over the years, Gardner had two daughters, who were mostly raised by their grandmother.

Gardner floated in and out of jail, on charges like shoplifting. Twice she tried rehab. She hid the worst of her addictions from her family, only showing up when she was straight and sober.

In the days after her daughter's death, Marie Beatty and her son visited the jail to pick up Gardner's personal effects. They also asked to speak to someone in charge. Beatty says she asked a jail administrator about the circumstances of her daughter's death.

The woman's explanation: "People die in the blink of an eye."

FINDING OUT

The first obstacle that many families encounter is the corrections department's policy of only allowing a "personal representative" of a deceased prisoner's estate to request records.

To qualify as a personal representative, a parent, spouse, child or other loved one must go to probate court to be legally appointed. Technically that doesn't require hiring a lawyer, but attorneys say it's hard to imagine someone going through the process without one.

It "can be a confusing process that takes both time and money, which is a struggle for many families, especially ones trying to navigate the unexpected loss of a loved one," explained Rifkin, the California attorney.

On the advice of her son, Marie Beatty hired an attorney named Richard Haggart. He laid the groundwork for a lawsuit, including quickly asking that the department preserve video evidence of Gardner in her cell. But by the time the video was turned over to him, hours of the recordings were missing, according to court filings about the case.

"It was ultimately determined that the Department of Corrections had not preserved the evidence as requested and had in fact completely disposed of the video-recording system and the contents of its disk drives," according to the files.

Without a complete record, the family's wrongful death case against the Department of Corrections rested on the testimony of Gardner's cellmate, who said Gardner had "exhibited considerable distress" and "called repeatedly for medical assistance" but was ignored by corrections officers.

In 2009, the state of Alaska offered $50,000 to settle the Gardner case before trial, according to court documents. The attorney advised Beatty to take it. An Anchorage jury might not believe the cellmate, he said. The money went to Gardner's two daughters, who are being raised by their grandmother.

Beatty never did get answers to many of her questions about her daughter's last hours.

Jenny Gardner's death certificate lists her cause of death as "Complications of chronic ethanol (alcohol) abuse."

Despite the outcome, Beatty is glad she took the Department of Corrections to court. "(The lawsuit) was the only way we found out anything," she said.

Finding out about inmate deaths is even harder for families from rural Alaska.

Amanda Kernak came from a village of fewer than 200 people on the shores of Lake Iliamna in Western Alaska.

She was a gentle soul, her mother, Martha Kernak, remembered, the kind of girl who was always bringing home stray dogs.

After her death at Hiland Mountain on April 10, a public safety officer in the village broke the news to her mother.

In the more than two weeks since, she has been told almost nothing by the Department of Corrections.

Without even a reliable cell phone signal in the village, answers feel very far away to Kernak. She's hoping a lawyer can help her find out more, she said. Otherwise, "there's no kind of information for me to know anything."

'MY SON PASSED AWAY'

Egan Tommy grew up in Newtok, a Western Alaska village scheduled to be moved because of erosion.

"Happy little guy," his father, Ignatius Tommy, said.

When Egan was about 18, he started saying crazy things. His dad wondered if his son was losing his mind. Egan Tommy would later be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, according to an investigation into his death.

Within a year, Tommy was arrested for shooting and killing a village elder. He pleaded no contest to murder, according to court records. He was sentenced and incarcerated at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, the state's maximum security prison.

Ignatius Tommy says he spoke to his son on the phone from time to time. Egan Tommy often urged his father to read the Bible. "He was real religious," his dad says.

At 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2011, Egan Tommy was found dead in his cell in the Echo Module at Spring Creek, according to an Alaska State Troopers dispatch.

Ignatius Tommy said he doesn't remember exactly who broke the news to him that his son had died. Maybe it was some troopers visiting the village, he said.

"They told me from there my son passed away."

The father was stunned. His son was 24. As far as he knew, Egan was mentally ill but physically healthy.

"I was wondering if there was neglect going on over there," Ignatius Tommy said. "If they take care of their prisoners."

A sister named Gloria Kanrilak of Tununak said the prison superintendent told her Tommy may have been sick with flu, the Daily News reported at the time.

An investigation would later find that Egan Tommy had died of a head injury.

'I GET BITTER'

What Ignatius Tommy did not know was that days after his son's death the Alaska Disability Law Center received a complaint alleging that prison staff had neglected Egan Tommy.

By federal law, every state must have a protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities. The Disability Law Center, an independent non-profit, is the designated agency for Alaska. That status gives it special rights to collect information unavailable to the public.

But even the law center has been denied DOC's internal investigation documents in the past, said staff attorney Leslie Jaehning.

The center relied on the findings of the Bureau of Investigation for its review of Tommy's death. The findings were published on the center's website in March 2012.

The report says Egan Tommy was known as one of the happier inmates at Spring Creek. He was noted to "talk about Jesus all the time."

In the 48 hours before he died, his behavior abruptly changed. He stopped taking anti-psychotic and anxiety medication. He was awake and vomiting during the night. He urinated in his cell and on his roommate's belongings -- not normal behavior for him.

Tommy "reported to staff members at least two times the symptoms he was experiencing and one time requested medical assistance," according to the report.

When he asked to see the nurse, he was "told to wait until morning because there was no medical staff on duty because of budget cuts."

He later died of a head injury.

"It could not be determined through the investigation when or how the offender sustained his head injury," the report said. "It was also undetermined if the offender would have survived the head trauma that resulted in his death with or without medical intervention by the Department (of Corrections)."

Jaehning said the Department of Corrections responded to the report by disagreeing with its conclusions.

Ignatius Tommy said he was never told about the investigation or the finding that the Department of Corrections had neglected his son's pleas for help. He only learned that his son had died of a head injury, he said, when a reporter called to talk to him two-and-a-half years after he died. By then it was too late for him to sue; the statute of limitations for a lawsuit is two years.

When he first heard that his son had died in prison, Tommy said, he wanted answers. But getting them seemed impossible. They were locked in an institution hundreds of miles away -- just as his son had been.

Eventually he saw no choice but to try to put his son out of his mind.

"I had to sit back and let him go," Tommy said. "I get bitter."

 

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

 


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com