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Alaska Department of Corrections at fault for inmate suicide in 2014, jury finds

Maria Rathbun speaks to a reporter about her son, Mark Bolus, in her lawyer’s office Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Alaska Department of Corrections was at fault for a 24-year-old's suicide in the Anchorage jail, a jury found last month.

Mark Bolus hanged himself with a blanket in his segregation cell at the Anchorage Correctional Complex on May 11, 2014. He died three days later in a local hospital.

Bolus' mother, Maria Rathbun, sued the state nearly two years after his death, in April 2016. She needed to know what had happened, Rathbun said in an interview last week.

Rathbun thought her son, who suffered from schizophrenia, would be safe in jail, after a parole violation landed him back in the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Six weeks later, he was dead.

"Don't leave your children in jail," Rathbun said. "If they have mental illness, get them out. Don't ever trust them to be taken care of in there. Not in Anchorage, anyway."

During closing arguments, the state's attorney argued that the Department of Corrections had given Bolus consistent and quality care, and his suicide could not have been predicted.

Bolus was responsible for his own death, the state argued, and in cases of suicide, loved ones sometimes will sometimes try to shift blame to other parties.

The Department of Corrections is the largest mental health provider in the state.

In Bolus' case, the jury found the agency failed its duties.

"It's been hell," Rathbun said. "What do you say when you lose a child and they hold you accountable for it?"

On Nov. 22, the jury found that the Department of Corrections was negligent, and that its negligence was a substantial factor in causing harm to Bolus. Bolus was impaired by his mental illness, and he was not capable of exercising due care for himself, the jury found.

The jury awarded Rathbun around $50,000 in past medical expenses, and $650,000 in other losses.

The final amount in damages has not yet been decided, but will be less than what the jury awarded. In Alaska, wrongful death suits are capped at $400,000.

"Our number one priority is safety; the safety of our inmates, staff, and our communities. Mr. Bolus' death was a tragedy, and while we deal with a very ill population, we do everything we can to try to prevent events like this from happening," wrote Megan Edge, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Maria Rathbun wears a locket containing the ashes of her son, Mark Bolus, in her lawyer’s office Friday. “He’s always close to me,” she said. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Bolus was one of four inmates who died in DOC custody in the spring and summer of 2014, incidents that were documented in a 2015 report detailing problems within the agency.

DOC Commissioner Dean Williams was appointed to the agency's head post following the review, which found outdated suicide policies, questionable use of solitary confinement and flawed internal investigations, among other concerns in what Gov. Bill Walker called "a very disturbing analysis."

"I trusted them. That was my fault," Rathbun said of the agency.

Rathbun's attorneys, Jason Skala and Lester Syren, said during closing arguments that the Department of Corrections could have prevented Bolus' death.

Bolus was brought to the Anchorage jail on a parole violation April 2, 2014. The next day, he was found to be stable during a mental health consultation.

On April 13, 10 days later, Bolus had been sent to Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. He was found "weeping, crying, rocking back and forth in his cell," Skala said, pointing the jury to exhibits in the case. Bolus was placed under observation.

The next day, Bolus had another consultation. He was described as manic and given the most severe acuity rating for his mania.

On April 16, during another consultation, a Seward official wrote that he "denies suicidal ideation," but was so manic "that it is difficult to guarantee his safety," so he was kept in observation.

In Seward, Bolus received appropriate care, Skala said. Bolus was placed under observation and his prescription requests were taken seriously.

Bolus was sent back to the Anchorage jail, which has more mental health facilities, with instructions to go to the mental health ward. He ended up in segregation instead, after asking to be put there.

On May 1, back in Anchorage, Bolus met a mental health counselor who wrote that Bolus again denied suicidal ideation. The counselor said Bolus should have another consultation in four weeks — far too long for someone whose demeanor could change so much in just 10 days, Skala argued.

On April 24, Bolus made two requests for medical care, one of which asked for medication, and another in which he said his "bridges are burned." Both requests were denied by the mental health counselor, despite the counselor not being able to prescribe medicine, Skala said.

On May 11, the day he died, Bolus made another medical request. "I want to live," the request said in part. He was found unconscious later that morning.

The difference between Bolus' care in Seward and Anchorage was the difference between life and death, Skala argued.

"When (Bolus) was treated like a human with a severe mental illness, like a patient, with respect, he lived. It shows that when he was treated like an offender and forgotten, he dies," Skala said.

The state's attorney, Susan West, said during closing arguments that Bolus had received appropriate, competent care.

The plaintiff had "made mountains out of molehills," using "every perceived mistake" to undercut the department's care for Bolus, West argued.

Bolus consistently denied suicidal ideation, West said.

"Some suicides are simply unexpected. They're stunning, they shock everybody who was around. … The signs just were not there," West said.

Bolus received far more care for his mental health in jail than he had outside prison walls, West said.

The mental health unit was often overcrowded and overbooked, West said. And after a few days back in Anchorage, on April 21, Bolus agreed to begin taking medication, and would no longer have been eligible for the mental health unit.

As to Bolus' final request asking for help, West said that the security guard would not have read it, if it was a medical request, and the officer did not recall reading it.

The Department of Corrections didn't cause his mental illness or contribute to it, West said. The agency was not responsible for his death, and the blame was being displaced onto the agency, West said.

"Suicide is often described as a cowardly act because it stops the immediate pain of the actor, but it sends out lifetime shock waves of pain and heartbreak for family and friends. … They're wracked with not just grief, but with guilt and self-doubt. And sometimes, there is a natural tendency to try and shift blame or guilt to other people, other entities," West said.

The state was still deciding whether to appeal, Cori Mills, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, wrote in an email.

"Obviously we are disappointed in the verdict and do not feel that it was supported by the evidence," Mills wrote.

For Rathbun, the verdict "was a huge burden off my shoulders," she said.

"I went to bed finally with a smile on my face. I mean, how do you heal from that?" Rathbun said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Bolus had hanged himself with a bed sheet; this has been corrected to say blanket. It also wrongly stated the date that Bolus was told to get a consultation in four weeks. That day was May 1, 2014.

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