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Crime & Courts

State abolishes investigative unit formed in wake of Alaska prison deaths

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: December 11, 2018
  • Published December 11, 2018

Goose Creek Correctional Center, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Department of Corrections is dissolving a special internal investigative unit formed following a spate of deaths in Alaska’s prisons.

The employees assigned to the Professional Conduct Unit have been reassigned or let go from the department after a decision by new commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Megan Edge confirmed Monday.

By email, she said three of the unit’s employees were relieved by the administration, and six were transferred to other jobs.

“Commissioner Dahlstrom is committed to finding efficiencies and cost-savings within the Department of Corrections, while ensuring public safety,” Edge wrote in an email. “We’re confident that with Gov. Dunleavy’s concentrated efforts to put public safety first that Alaska State Troopers will have the resources necessary to investigate crimes committed within our institutions carefully and with the upmost professionalism. The Department of Corrections will continue to collaborate with and support these investigations to ensure that justice is served.”

Sen.-elect Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said he agrees with the move to get rid of the unit. As a member of the House, Kawasaki served as the budget subcommittee chairman for the Department of Corrections.

“I think it was a good cut,” he said, calling the unit “excessive.”

“I think this is money that will go back to troopers, back to investigations, and back to the Department of Corrections, and I think that’s a good thing,” Kawasaki said.

The Professional Conduct Unit was created in 2016 by then-commissioner Dean Williams following a series of inmate deaths and other issues involving both prisoners and corrections officers. A November 2015 report found widespread failures and dysfunction within the state’s prison system contributed to at least six deaths. That report led to the resignation of Ron Taylor as corrections commissioner and his eventual replacement with Williams.

John Green is the father of Kellsie Green, a 24-year-old who died in department custody in 2016 while detoxing from a heroin addiction. He says the way the department treated his daughter contributed to her death, and in an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit is attempting to prove it.

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He said he is disturbed by the move to dissolve the internal affairs unit. He saw its establishment as a positive move.

“It just seems awfully spooky to me,” he said of the unit’s end. “I just think it opens up a lot of dark areas, because I know how difficult it was — still, even — to get information about my daughter’s death.”

Asked who will be taking up the role of watchdog in the Department of Corrections, Edge wrote, “Alaska State Troopers have statutory authority to investigate crimes committed within the walls of our prisons, the skills necessary to do so effectively, and a successful track record handling these investigations. For these reasons, Commissioner Dahlstrom has chosen to move forward without the Professional Conduct.”

“So if the troopers don’t investigate, then who’s going to do it?” Green said when told of the department’s position.

The Professional Conduct Unit’s investigations led to the conviction of at least one corrections officer for drug smuggling, but they also have garnered criticism from the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, the union representing correctional officers.

In October, the ACOA and a corrections officer filed suit against the department, claiming that officials at Goose Creek Correctional Center knew about an impending attack on a correctional officer but failed to act to prevent it. When the officer contacted the conduct unit and asked for an investigation, the lawsuit says the unit failed to appropriately examine the case.

In a document shared on its website, the ACOA has compiled a complaint against former commissioner Dean Williams and Sherrie Daigle, the former head of the professional conduct unit. In it, the union’s leaders say Williams and Daigle were open about complaints levied against corrections officers but less open about complaints it says were levied against the administration.

“Correctional officers applaud Governor Dunleavy’s decision to dissolve the Professional Conduct Unit, a duplicitous and political organization that worked at the behest of former Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams to attack his perceived enemies,” ACOA business manager Brad Wilson wrote by email. “The PCU’s policies were deceptive and subverted officers’ Constitutional rights. This was highlighted in an Unfair Labor Practice that the PCU had to admit it committed, and actions that resulted in an additional Unfair Labor Practice charge.”

In his prepared remarks, Wilson referenced the lawsuit against the department, saying it represented another example of misconduct by the Professional Conduct Unit.

He said he believes troopers can do the job of overseeing corrections officers.

“Prior to the PCU, the Alaska State Troopers had always conducted criminal investigations within correctional institutions and Human Resources has conducted administrative investigations. Not only has this model worked in the past, this duplicity with the PCU was costing the state millions of dollars in extravagant salaries and travel costs,” Wilson wrote.

Asked whether the end of the Professional Conduct Unit was due to ongoing or under-consideration litigation, Edge said simply, “No.”

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