Last summer, it seemed like James Rider was turning a corner.
The 31-year-old from Wasilla had spent years struggling with drug addiction, accumulating a low-level criminal record and derailing a career in construction.
He’d finally started taking steps to address his substance abuse problem, and his family sensed change might be coming.
Then, in August, he was booked into the Palmer jail on charges that included trespassing and removing his ankle monitor. Ten days later, he was dead.
Rider’s older brother, Mike Cox, is still trying to piece together what happened. When Rider got to Mat-Su Pretrial Facility, he voiced feelings of hopelessness and was placed on suicide precautions. His brother says he was stripped and put in an anti-suicide smock in a padded cell.
In a jailhouse phone call, Rider told his brother he found the experience humiliating. He vowed to never mention feeling suicidal to jail staff again.
A few days later, Rider was taken off suicide precautions and — for reasons his family still doesn’t understand — placed alone in a cell. He hanged himself.
In 2022, a record 18 people died while in custody of the Alaska Department of Corrections.
Seven of those deaths, or about 40%, were suicides, according to the department. That’s also a record.
Until now, little has been publicly known about the circumstances of these deaths and the events that preceded them.
Corrections department officials have consistently said they can’t release details about individual deaths because of medical privacy laws.
But an analysis by the Anchorage Daily News sheds new light on in-custody deaths in Alaska. The Daily News obtained and reviewed Alaska State Troopers investigation reports and medical examiner records, and spoke with families, advocates and prison officials.
The analysis of in-custody deaths shows that of the seven suicides:
• Two occurred in housing units where inmates with mental health concerns are placed for heightened monitoring.
• Two people killed themselves while in solitary confinement in “segregation” or “special management” units.
• In one case, a young woman’s suicide went undetected by guards for more than three hours, despite seven “wellness checks” to her cell. She was being held in a unit meant to provide a hospital level of psychiatric care.
• Two men who’d recently been on suicide watch were moved to cells alone, a scenario the department’s own chief of mental health says is not recommended. One of the men had just been cleared from suicide watch by a psychiatrist.
The trooper investigation reports also reveal the circumstances of some of the deaths classified as “natural.” Those include five deaths due to terminal illness, a man who died from pneumonia related to COVID-19 and a man who died from a seizure disorder. The Alaska Department of Public Safety did not release six incident reports for cases that had not been finalized.
The suicides unfolded at a startling pace: In June alone, four people took their own lives in four different prisons, from Nome to Seward to Eagle River to Anchorage. One death per week. All of the suicides involved people who were on pretrial status in jail, accused of crimes for which they had not yet been convicted.
The sheer number of deaths is alarming, said A.E. Daniel, a Missouri-based forensic psychiatrist who has written several books on prevention of suicide in correctional facilities. “It should enable the administrators to take a look at their program and see where they went wrong.”
Officials with the Department of Corrections say they are reviewing Alaska’s policies on suicide prevention. But the review hasn’t identified a unifying issue, said Adam Rutherford, acting director of the Division of Health and Rehabilitation Services.
“I wish I could say that there was,” he said. “Because … then you could just fix that issue and prevent it from occurring again.”
The Department of Corrections had an independent investigative unit that made inquiries into deaths, including suicides, from 2016 to 2018. The newly appointed commissioner, Nancy Dahlstrom, eliminated the unit early in her tenure after the election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, citing cost savings.
National increase in suicides at correctional facilities
Experts agree that prisons have a legal, medical and ethical duty to provide physical and mental health care for incarcerated people, including preventing suicides.
Yet suicide in correctional facilities is a mounting national crisis.
Self-inflicted deaths are the leading cause of death in jails nationally, according to a study by Florida Atlantic University, with a rate three times higher than among the general public.
Moreover, such deaths among incarcerated people have been rising over the past two decades, and have increased sharply around the country, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Suicide rates among incarcerated people rose during the pandemic.
The reasons aren’t clear, said Daniel.
“One of the reasons could be the pandemic, which caused significant isolation” in jails and prisons, with quarantine rules limiting contact, visits and the kinds of classes and therapy available, he said.
The stretched labor market also led to staffing shortages for correctional employees that monitor inmates.
Correctional systems can — and must — prevent suicides through policies and training, Daniel said. The most common mistakes that corrections departments make come down to failures of screening and identification of a suicide risk, and of inadequate monitoring.
First, Daniel said, it’s important to have mental health professionals screen prisoners for suicidal risk — especially during the first few days in jail. People who are intoxicated or coming off drugs are at especially high risk.
Most of Alaska’s in-custody suicide deaths of 2022 were people who had only been incarcerated a relatively short time while awaiting trials. Some were detoxing from drugs or had a history of addiction, according to Megan Edge of the ACLU of Alaska, who has talked with families of some of those who died. And about 65% of all of Alaska’s inmate population has a diagnosable mental illness, according to corrections officials.
“Those are really complicated issues for somebody to have and go into such a traumatic setting, when they’re not going to get the resources that they need,” Edge said.
Rider was a “typical Valley kid” who grew up in a rambling Houston home with two siblings, his brother said. His family also spent time living in King Salmon and Naknek, where they commercial fished in Bristol Bay. As an adult, he found work painting barges, cleaning boats, doing construction and working on motors. He liked to hunt, fish and ride four-wheelers. He had three kids, and a fiancee.
He was the baby of the family, a people-pleasing joker who loved attention, his brother said.
“He was so damn funny,” Cox said. “He made any situation something to laugh about.”
On Aug. 30, Rider was arrested by troopers for trespassing, cutting off his ankle monitor and violating the terms of his release in another case. Cox said Rider knew he had an outstanding warrant and cut off his ankle monitor on purpose, knowing he’d go to jail.
“He wanted to get in and start serving his time for his warrant,” Cox said.
He’d spent short stints in jail before, for low-level property crimes. But once he was at Mat-Su Pretrial, he learned he was facing serious felony charges that could lead to years in prison. Bereft, he told jail officials he was feeling suicidal and found himself on strict precautions.
“He said it was completely humiliating to be stripped down naked and put into a padded room,” Cox said. “He told me on the phone, he would never say s--t to these correctional officers about being suicidal again after the way he was treated.”
Off precautions, he was moved to a cell with roommates. Then on Sept. 5, Rider was transferred to a cell in the “Charlie Dorm,” where he was left alone. His brother isn’t sure why — the Palmer jail is notoriously overcrowded. Charlie Mod is a “segregation unit,” but it’s not clear if Rider was in punitive solitary confinement or he had asked to be placed in a cell alone.
That day, at 6:28 p.m. guards were alerted to a “possible suicide,” according to a State Medical Examiner’s Office investigator narrative shared by Cox. Rider had hanged himself from his bunk bed with a bedsheet. The narrative is the only documentation Cox has been able to get about the circumstances of his brother’s death. Rider was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.
Cox remembers the night well: The family had just gone to the Alaska State Fair.
“Troopers came out early in the morning and told us that there had been an accident at the jail,” he said. “James was in the hospital. By the time we got to the hospital, they told us that he committed suicide.”
At the hospital, his family found him with brain damage and no chance of recovery. They started the process to donate his organs.
As Rider was wheeled into the operating room, “the whole hospital lined up on both sides to pay their respects to him,” a tradition when an organ donation happens, Cox said. “The only good thing that came out of that whole thing was that one moment: James being the star again, making other people feel good with his donation.”
Alaska’s corrections department has a history of failing to prevent suicides.
The most high-profile case: Israel Keyes, the federal inmate charged in the death of an Anchorage teenager and suspected of being a serial killer. Investigators with the FBI were in a monthlong process of interrogating Keyes in December 2012 when he was able to kill himself in a maximum-security cell at the Anchorage Correctional Complex.
The state paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit settlement and damages to the family of Mark Bolus, who died by suicide in the department’s custody.
Bolus hanged himself in solitary confinement at the Anchorage jail in 2014.
His family had thought Bolus, who had schizophrenia, would be safer in jail than anywhere else. Bolus’ mother, Maria Rathbun, sued. A jury found that the department was negligent, and that Bolus’ was impaired by mental illness and “not capable of exercising due care” for himself.
Rathbun was awarded $650,000 in the case.
The department currently faces at least two current lawsuits on behalf of women who attempted or died by suicide while incarcerated in 2020. Both suits allege that the department failed to take adequate precautions.
Gabby Chipps was arrested for the first time on Aug. 23, 2020, in Homer, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. Despite being on suicide precautions and classified as “mentally unsound,” she was placed in solitary confinement, sometimes called “administrative segregation,” at Wildwood Correctional Facility in Kenai, the lawsuit says.
A correctional officer found her hanging from a bedsheet. It took more than five minutes for other workers to respond and cut her down. By that time she had suffered brain damage.
The lawsuit lays out her disabilities in stark detail: “Gabby has impaired vision and cannot see, Gabby cannot read, Gabby cannot speak, Gabby cannot feed herself, Gabby cannot walk, Gabby cannot bathe herself, Gabby requires a full-time caregiver for the rest of her life.”
The 21-year-old is now cared for by family members.
In December 2020, Natalie Andreaknoff had been in jail for less than a day when she took her own life at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, according to a lawsuit on her behalf. She was placed in a cell beyond the range of surveillance cameras, the lawsuit alleges.
The corrections department “knew or should have known that placing Ms. Andreaknoff in inadequately monitored confinement would exacerbate her mental illness, drug withdrawal symptoms and risk for suicide.”
Both lawsuits assert that the women were misclassified by the department, and housed under conditions that made it easy and foreseeable they would attempt suicide.
The Alaska Department of Law said both cases are “active litigation.” The department didn’t offer a further response to the allegations in the lawsuits, saying it would answer in court.
Trooper investigations of the in-custody deaths that occurred last year obtained by the Daily News describe instances in which inmates were not monitored to the department’s policy of irregular 15-minute wellness checks, or when those checks didn’t reveal what was really happening in a cell — such as in the case of Kitty Douglas.
In March, Douglas, who was 20, was in Hiland Mountain Correctional Center’s acute mental health unit — one of two units statewide that’s supposed to offer a level of care comparable to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.
Douglas, originally from White Mountain, had been in jail for six days on a misdemeanor criminal mischief charge. She was accused of breaking the windshield of a van in the Sullivan Arena parking lot. Her bail had been set at $100.
Video of Douglas’ cell showed her lying down in her bunk bed just before 4 p.m., according to the trooper report. Her last movements were captured about 10 minutes later, the report said. Over the next hours, correctional officers made seven “wellness checks” on the cell.
But no one realized she was dead for three hours, until 7:18 p.m., when a correctional officer came by to distribute snacks.
The Alaska State Troopers report says the suicide was missed in wellness checks because correctional officers thought Douglas was sleeping under sheets.
A note found in her cell said she wanted to be buried in White Mountain.
William Ben Hensley III was in a cell alone at Goose Creek’s high-security “special management unit” in October when a guard checked on him at 1:37 a.m., then returned to his office to do paperwork, according to a trooper investigation into his death.
The next check didn’t happen until 2:20 a.m. — some 43 minutes later. Hensley III had placed a sheet up to block the view before killing himself.
Every Alaska in-custody suicide death in 2022 involved a ligature used for hanging or asphyxiation. Nationally, about 90% of self-inflicted deaths in jails are due to hanging and self-strangulation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The corrections department has taken steps to remove risks in the design of housing units, Rutherford said. Suicide precautions can also involve use of a “suicide prevention sleep system” and “suicide smock,” both made from tear-resistant fabric.
But the department probably can’t completely eliminate ligature risks, said Rutherford.
“Someone can harm themselves with their clothing,” he said. “You can’t go to the extreme of taking everything away.”
Earlier this month, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jen Winkelman testified about the deaths to the Alaska Legislature in Juneau.
The 18 deaths are too many, she said. “They are somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, they are somebody’s family member,” she said.
Edge, of the ACLU, heard reason for hope in Winkelman’s answers.
“She acknowledged that there were too many,” Edge said. “And she said they are investigating them.”
The ACLU wants to see the department return to having its own independent internal affairs unit. When the department had one, from roughly 2016-2018, deaths were viewed critically as a chance to improve procedures, in a way Edge says doesn’t happen today.
“When things like suicide happened, it wasn’t, ‘Well, that was a suicide. So there’s nothing we can do about it.’ They were investigating what happened to allow that to happen.”
“Like, what could have saved that person’s life?”
For their part, people responsible for health care in Alaska’s corrections facilities say they urgently want to find ways to prevent suicide.
The department has joined a national effort by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to decrease suicides by 20% by the year 2025 and training more staff in “mental health first aid.”
Rutherford also wants people to speak more openly about suicidal thoughts.
“Within a correctional facility there’s a myth that if you talk about (suicide) it will happen,” he said. “It’s actually just the exact opposite.”
Corrections officials also say they wish people on the outside could see more than they do: Only what goes catastrophically wrong inside a prison makes the news, said Dr. Robert Lawrence, the chief medical officer for the department. Not the routine health care that inmates get, not the suicide attempts thwarted.
Mike Cox says his brother’s death has made an unlikely activist out of him.
He still has questions. Basic ones, about what exactly happened to Rider and why. And broader ones, about what the Alaska Department of Corrections will do to prevent deaths of despair within its facilities.
“I think even if I got the answers I would still be angry,” he said.
“It’s beyond my brother now.”
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the 24/7 Alaska Careline at 988, or 1-877-266-HELP at any time. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit health.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.