The ACLU of Alaska on Thursday announced lawsuits on behalf of two men who died by suicide in Alaska prisons recently, calling for an independent investigation into a record number of deaths.
In addition to financial settlements, the organization is asking for the court to order an independent investigation into Department of Corrections practices, said Ruth Botstein, the organization’s legal director.
“There must be greater accountability and transparency on behalf of the Department of Corrections to prevent these tragedies from occurring,” Botstein said.
The Alaska Department of Law and Department of Corrections haven’t been served with the lawsuits or reviewed them yet, the departments said.
A Daily News investigation earlier this year found that suicides drove the record number of deaths in Alaska correctional facilities last year, and documented lapses including instances when deaths happened even after inmates had been identified as a suicide risk.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuits are family members of two men who died by suicide in Alaska prisons in the past year.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of James Rider by the ACLU of Alaska and the law firm Friedman Rubin alleges that Rider was placed into a cell alone at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility despite being a “known suicide risk.” Rider died by suicide 11 days after being booked into jail in September. The plaintiffs in the case are Rider’s brother Mike Cox and Tamara Halliburton, the mother of his child.
Mark Cook Jr. was held at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau for weeks on a disorderly conduct charge because his family couldn’t afford bail, according to a lawsuit filed by Cook Jr.’s grandfather Thomas Abel of Hoonah, who is represented by Juneau attorney Vance Sanders.
Cook’s debilitating back pain from an injury worsened until he couldn’t get up from the floor of his cell, according to the lawsuit. In unrelenting pain, he took his life on April 22 after covering the camera in his cell, the lawsuit alleges.
“My grandson was admitted to Lemon Creek with severe injuries that were known before he got there,” said Abel.
Both Rider and Cook Jr. were in solitary confinement when they died, family members said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported when the men died. James Rider died in September 2022, and Mark Cook Jr. died in April 2023.