Elise Patkotak: Prison system must be held accountable for deaths

Elise Patkotak
OPINION: Columnist Elise Patkotak says it's too easy for most of us to shrug at deaths inside Alaska's prison system. That's wrong, for the Department of Corrections must be held accountable - for everyone's sake. Pictured: A cell at Goose Creek prison. Loren Holmes photo

Sometimes it’s easier than we care to admit to turn our faces away from a headline about a death in jail. Subconsciously most of us believe, if only a little, that a prisoner is someone who has done something bad, so the death is not really a big deal. This is probably why, given the number of deaths in the state corrections system over the past few months, there has not been a huge outcry and demand for transparency concerning them.

These deaths have run the gamut of how people die – suicide, homicide and just found dead. If any other agency, from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute to the Brother Francis Shelter, had those deaths occur while the person was in their facility, there would be a public demand for a thorough investigation of all circumstances surrounding the deaths. But these deaths happened in prison, and so we all quietly avert our gaze and hope it will go away. After all, they were in jail. They must have done something wrong. So let’s not put too much time and money into this.

Sadly, the state system looking at these occurrences seems totally lacking in everything from competence to computers. Given the reasons stated in Monday's ADN article by Michelle Theriault Boots, the state Department of Corrections seems to be reveling in its incompetency and daring anyone to put up the time and resources needed to wade through the jumble of paperwork and confusion that passes for an investigation of an in-custody death. It’s as though the DOC has taken the VA as its role model.

The one point on which I agree with the DOC is that people are often incarcerated when, in fact, they should be hospitalized for mental illness. The closing of mental health institutions, combined with the lack of mental health services to support those no longer living in institutions, make our jails and prisons de facto long-term mental health facilities. Dealing with people experiencing mental illness takes some very special training and understanding. It is not necessarily the kind of training and education most working in the penal system get beyond a cursory review of the topic. Thankfully, people with mental illnesses have strong advocacy groups in our community who work to help both those ill and those coping with family and friends who are ill. But their reach seems to stop at the prison door.

And what about those others, the ones who died of homicide or bleeding ulcers? Families deserve some answer about how someone is killed in a supposedly secure facility. Families deserve to know how someone has the time and access to items that allow the person to kill himself or herself without being noticed by prison personnel. Families deserve an answer to how someone dies of a bleeding ulcer, a condition that is all too treatable if someone is paying the slightest bit of attention. Again, I find the resounding silence from the general public on this topic astounding.

When we imprison people in this country, we do so based on a constitutional guarantee of no cruel and unusual punishment. Bleeding to death from an ulcer that could have been treated might be considered by many as cruel and unusual punishment. Being placed in a cell with someone who already tried to kill a cellmate might also be considered in this light. There might be very good reasons why this was done. There might be very good reasons why no correctional officer noticed someone dying on the floor of a cell. There might be very good answers for all these deaths. The thing is, unless the Department of Corrections acknowledges the public’s right to know and becomes more transparent in dealing with the families of those who died in its custody, we’ll never know for sure.

Some prisoners may have done horrible things. Some may have simply gotten too drunk in public. Some may be innocent and incarcerated for a crime they didn’t do and for which they will eventually be acquitted. They are all human beings. They deserve to be treated as such.

You think it will never happen to you or yours. But it can. And when it does, you’ll want answers. Just don’t expect to get them. The DOC is apparently a god unto itself. It need answer to no one.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores. 

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.