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After fourth Alaska jail death, French calls for hearing

Michelle Theriault Boots

Before she became addicted to heroin, Kirsten Simon was a mother of two who owned a housecleaning business in Anchorage.

On June 6, she became the fourth person since April to die suddenly in an Alaska jail.

Now, an Anchorage Legislator is asking top Department of Corrections officials to answer questions about the deaths at a public hearing planned for early July in Anchorage.

"While I realize that the Department deals with thousands of inmates daily, it seems to me that the public needs more information about what happened in these cases and what steps the Department is taking to ensure the safety of Alaskans in custody, especially those with physical or mental health issues," Sen. Hollis French wrote in a June 13 letter to D.O.C. Commissioner Joe Schmidt.

No date for the hearing has yet been set. French said he was responding to his constituents.

"There's concern in the community over the spate of inmate deaths," he said.

As is often the case when someone dies in an Alaska jail, what happened to Simon, 33, is far from clear. She was booked into the Anchorage jail on warrants for forgery and theft on June 5. She was supposed to make a court appearance the next day and transfer to Hiland Mountain Correctional Complex. She never made it.

Around 6:30 p.m. on June 6, guards found her dead in a cell, still in the booking area. That night, police officers showed up at her mother's apartment in Turnagain. Cea Anderson answered the door. Last December, she had taken in Simon's daughters, ages 5 and 7, when their mother relapsed on heroin. Anderson looked at the officers and knew the news was not good. She hustled her granddaughters to the back of the house.

Later, after the police had gone, she sat the girls down.

"I wrapped them in blankets and told them that their mama went to be with Jesus, and that someday they'll see her again," said Anderson, 61. "But for now they have to be strong, and good."

The Alaska Department of Corrections says four deaths in the span of a few months is not out of the ordinary, and even to be expected. Ten to 12 people, on average, die each year in state custody. Prisoners are more likely to have compromised health, officials say.

"Many inmates come to the department from exceptionally difficult lifestyles - generally not conducive to overall good health," wrote Sherrie Daigle, a department spokeswoman.

Each of the four who have died this spring had substance abuse problems or serious mental illnesses when they went to jail.

First, on April 4, Davon Mosley, a 20-year-old with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was discovered dead in his isolation cell and later found to have died from an unusual cluster of bleeding ulcers. On April 10, Amanda Kernak, a 24-year-old from Kokhanok, died at Hiland Mountain after showing signs of alcohol withdrawal. The D.O.C. later said Kernak died of complications related to alcohol-caused liver damage. Mark Bolus, a 24-year-old with schizophrenia, hung himself at the Anchorage jail May 11 after weeks in isolation.

In each case, families have publicly raised the same questions: Could the deaths have been prevented? Would Mosley, Kernak, Bolus and Simon have died if they weren't in jail?

The Alaska Department of Corrections says it investigates every death to determine whether its policies and procedures were followed. But the results of the investigation are not released to the public.

Simon grew up mostly in Anchorage. She swam on the Romig Middle School swim team and helped her mom sell albums for the band she once sang with, Medicine Dream. Simon had three half-sisters and won academic awards for reading and math. At age 10, she contracted an infection that spread gangrene up her leg. She spent excruciating months in the hospital undergoing treatment to heal.

"She was an overcomer," Anderson said.

As an adult, Simon studied at the University of Alaska Southeast and owned a housecleaning business, Have Mop Will Clean. Starting in 2007 or so, her mother said, Simon became addicted to heroin. Anderson says Simon was clean for years when her daughters were small, even visiting women still undergoing rehab to speak about her sobriety. Her daughters went to museums and summer festivals with her. She made sure they had new clothes, even as Simon's wardrobe was faded with bleach stains.

Sometime last winter, Simon began using again, her mother said. When drug paraphernalia was found in the house Simon was living in, Anderson took her granddaughters. Still, Simon kept attending her daughter's Head Start preschool board meetings, in February reporting the success of a swimming pool play date and cookie decorating activity.

In the spring, Simon was hospitalized after contracting an infection that spread internally. She spent time in rehab for heroin. She also struggled with maintaining a healthy weight, and was thinking about getting gastric bypass surgery.

Anderson doesn't know exactly what was happening in her daughter's life in the days and weeks before she entered jail --whether she was on heroin or detoxing, if she had a lingering internal infection.

"Everything is sketchy," Anderson said.

Doris "Vera" James says she spent most of the last day of Kirsten Simon's life in a cell with her. One thing was clear to James: The woman was very sick.

James was booked into jail on misdemeanor assault charges after a fight with her boyfriend, she said. When she arrived at the Anchorage Jail at around 7:30 a.m. on Friday, June 6, she says she was placed in a cell with Simon. For the next seven hours she watched as Simon was violently ill, even soiling herself.

James, a 52-year-old mother from Fort Yukon, says hours went by without a guard even looking in the concrete-walled booking cell. She never saw Simon receive any kind of medical attention, though a health station was within earshot.

"I didn't see anyone check on her the whole time," James said.

James was taken to court in the afternoon, but Simon didn't go. She just laid on the floor of the cell, even after a guard said she'd "drag her to court," according to James. When James returned from court around 5:30, she was put in a cell next door to Simon, who seemed to be sleeping on the floor. Sometime between 6-7 p.m. guards did look into the cell, James said. Someone called a "Code Blue," which means that an inmate is unresponsive.

James has been replaying the day in her head. She never heard Simon ask for help. James never stepped in and asked guards to look at her, either.

"I didn't say anything to officers," James said. "Now I feel like I should have."

Cea Anderson believes answers about what happened to her daughter will come, maybe from the D.O.C. and maybe from an attorney she is talking to about investigating the death. She's aware the conclusions may not be black-and-white.

What's most important is that her granddaughters remember their mother for her life, not the way she died, she said.

"I don't want them to think of her dying in jail," Anderson said. "I want them to remember how she really was."

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


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com