Lawmakers left a packed public hearing addressing a string of recent inmate deaths in Alaska jails and prisons Tuesday calling for legislation to establish a third-party independent review of such deaths.
“I think (such legislation) is very realistic,” said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage. “Other states do it, first of all. I heard the (correctional officers union) asking for it. And I didn’t really hear the commissioner say that’s a bad idea.”
Tuesday’s hearing brought top Department of Corrections officials together to answer for the recent deaths of five young inmates at Alaska correctional institutions between April and June.
The hearing was held in a room tucked in the temporary downtown Legislative Information Office next to the Gaslight Lounge. Spectators -- including mental health advocates, correctional officers, news crews, families of dead inmates, and attorneys -- spilled out into the hallway.
The turnout was much larger than what's typical for a legislative hearing, said French. The lawmaker said he convened the hearing after getting calls from concerned constituents.
Three other Democratic Anchorage lawmakers -- Reps. Berta Gardner, Geran Tarr, and Andy Josephson -- attended. After the hearing, Josephson said that he would research the third-party independent review idea and consider introducing a bill for the next legislative session.
DOC officials said that recent deaths aren’t out of the ordinary and on average 10-12 people die in Alaska jails each year.
Medical response to the deaths was “good,” said DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt.
"There were a few technical issues we did encounter but nothing that would have caused one of these deaths," he said.
He didn’t explain what the technical issues were.
As a result, though, the department added a unit for women at the Anchorage jail to improve access to 24-hour medical care, Schmidt said.
Amanda Kernak, 24, died at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, the state's only prison for women, on April 10.
Hiland has medical staff on call only 18 hours a day, though a nurse was working when Amanda Kernak died, Schmidt said.
On Tuesday, Schmidt acknowledged that information for families in the wake of a sudden and unexpected death within Alaska's correctional facilities is often scarce.
“I think (the scrutiny the DOC finds itself under is partly due to) the fact that families weren’t able to get quick information. And I think that legitimately causes concern,” he said.
Alaska Correctional Officers Association head Brad Wilson said officers had acted heroically during some of the recent deaths, including providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"We need to shed light on this," he said. "I think we need to look at an independent third party to come in and look at these deaths. It should never be business as usual for people to die."
Schmidt said he’d welcome transparency, but with limits.
“We have to be careful just going forth with tremendous amounts of information, just to get people happy...we can get ourselves into trouble trying to avoid any public criticism,” Schmidt said.
The department is in the process of drafting an updated policy on procedures related to prisoner deaths, he said. It would be declassified and made available to the public within weeks, he said.
A total of 148 people have died in the care of the Alaska Department of Corrections since 2000, according to department statistics.
Of those, 91 -- about 61 percent -- died of trauma, suicide or an “acute medical condition,” rather than a chronic illness.
As a former prosecuting attorney, French said he was struck by testimony from families of deceased prisoners Kirsten Simon and Davon Mosley.
Simon, 33, a mother of two, was found dead in a booking cell at the Anchorage jail on June 6. Mosley, 20, a father of two sons with a baby on the way, died in an isolation cell, also at the Anchorage jail, on April 4. His family said he suffered from schizophrenia.
Simon’s mother Cea Anderson showed the audience photos of her daughter and the two children she left. Simon, Anderson said, struggled with addiction. Anderson said she believed her daughter had possibly relapsed on heroin the day she died in jail. Anderson was disturbed by reports from a cellmate of Simon's that she spent hours sick on the floor without medical attention before her death.
Mosley’s fiancée Vernesia Gordon said in the weeks before Mosley's death she was repeatedly told by jail staff that she couldn't see or visit him. She questioned why he hadn't been released after charges against him had been dismissed by Alaska prosecutors.
She showed the audience pictures of bruises and cuts found on Mosley's body after he died.
“I spent a lot of my career sending people off to jail,” said French. “You can’t downplay the human cost of both imprisonment and the horrible events like the ones that took place here.”
Contact Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com.