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Report: Widespread dysfunction in Alaska prisons may have led to inmate deaths

Gov. Bill Walker announced Monday that he had accepted the resignation of Alaska's corrections commissioner after the release of a scathing report detailing widespread failures and dysfunction that may have led to deaths in Alaska jails.

Walker said he received the resignation of Ron Taylor on Sunday. At an 11 a.m. Monday news conference following the report's release, Walker said Walt Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief and state commissioner of public safety, would temporarily take over Alaska's prison system during a search for a replacement.

Walker had ordered the outside review in August after a string of highly publicized prisoner deaths that stirred public outcry and drew some lawmakers' attention.

"It's clear as a result of this that the system is broken," Walker said at the news conference. "And we're going to fix it."

Walker assigned aide Dean Williams, former superintendent of an Anchorage juvenile justice center, to write the report along with Joe Hanlon, a retired FBI agent. Over three months, the pair visited all 13 Alaska prisons and jails, conducted more than 200 interviews with management, staff and prisoners, and reviewed 22 case files on prisoner deaths.

They were given access to files, surveillance video and documents unavailable to the public or even to legislators. Their 20-page report describes problems raised by employees, such as chronic understaffing and lack of training, and jails burdened by a steady influx of people being held because they are dangerously drunk, not alleged criminals.

The report also detailed publicly for the first time six instances in which prisoners died in custody. In one case, the report said, a man died while being restrained by guards after he yelled that he couldn't breathe.

In another, a man being detained because he was drunk suffered a heart attack and died while asking for help.

Walker said he found the revelations in the report "troubling."

"It was a very disturbing analysis," he said.

The report includes eight reform recommendations but Walker said his only move would be "at the top," replacing the department's commissioner. Decisions about new policies, he added, would be made by Monegan and the two authors of the report.

"The governor's office is committed to working with Acting Commissioner Monegan to prioritize the recommendations outlined in the report," a spokesperson for Walker, Katie Marquette, added in an email late Monday.

Taylor, the outgoing commissioner, couldn't be reached for comment Monday. He was appointed by Walker 11 months ago following the departure of commissioner Joe Schmidt, who left after his former boss, Gov. Sean Parnell, lost his re-election campaign.

Among the report's major findings:

• Outdated policies, including guidelines on suicide prevention, that haven't been updated in 20 years.

• A flawed internal investigation process for deaths, including "untrained and inexperienced" investigators. The report found that Alaska State Troopers, who work for the Department of Public Safety and are supposed to provide a neutral outside review when inmates die, made serious errors in two recent cases, including not interviewing critical witnesses and missing important video evidence.

• Lax consequences for serious instances of employee misconduct. One corrections officer was caught on video assaulting an inmate "with an object" but human resources was never told, even though law enforcement had investigated the incident and referred it for possible prosecution.

• Medically fragile people in noncriminal protective custody, usually because they're drunk, brought to jail by law enforcement and then not receiving adequate medical care. The problem shows the thankless role jails play in serving as a temporary holding place for some of the most difficult and vulnerable people in the state, who often have nowhere else to go.

• Questionable use of solitary confinement, a practice that authorities nationwide are under increasing pressure to dial back. In one case uncovered by investigators, four 17-year-olds being held in adult prison after an escape attempt from a juvenile facility had been in solitary confinement for 11 months. "They reported they are not receiving education services and their out-of-cell time constitutes time in the hallway with a rare visit outside the building in a cage-type area," the report said.

• Department of Law attorneys primarily responsible for defending the state against lawsuits exercising a oversized influence over DOC business that sometimes resulted in incomplete investigations. Staff interviewed told the report's authors that the law department "expressed concerns that documenting all the facts around an inmate death might make it easier for the state to be found financially liable for the death."

• The corrections department spending $1.5 million on body scanners to search staff for contraband when they enter secure areas of state jails. The 10 scanners failed "and now sit as sentinels in remand areas with no purpose."

Williams concluded that the department in some cases had tried to address problems but those efforts were at best haphazard.

Recommendations in the report include:

• The creation of an independent investigation team to look into deaths that does not report to the Department of Corrections.

• Prison superintendents being in charge of all employees who work in their facilities, including nurses and mental health workers. Most medical and mental health staff currently report to managers in the department's central office, which can stymie "a sense of collective responsibility and accountability."

• Eliminating the practice of sending drunken people to jail, which stems from a state law.

At Monday's news conference, Monegan said he would use the report as a "guide to what needs to be addressed" by the corrections department.

The search for a permanent commissioner, meanwhile, could be nationwide, Walker said — though he added that Monegan could end up keeping the job.

Monegan is a veteran of Alaska law enforcement who spent five years as Anchorage's police chief, then was hired as Alaska Public Safety Commissioner by Gov. Sarah Palin in 2006, only to be fired by her in 2008 in the "Troopergate" scandal.

The state Legislature's subsequent investigation found that one of the "contributing factors" in Monegan's dismissal was his refusal to fire a state trooper who was once married to one of Palin's sisters — a firing that Palin's husband was inappropriately pushing for.

The state corrections officers union welcomed Monegan's appointment in a prepared statement Monday.

"You could search the nation and not find anyone more qualified to be commissioner of corrections than Walt Monegan," the statement quoted the union's business manager, Brad Wilson, as saying. "His reputation precedes him."

The state's investigation noted "long-standing labor issues" and a "sometimes-toxic" workplace at the corrections department, and it said staffing cuts can have significant impacts on safety and staff morale.

"It will be an ongoing challenge to find a proper balance between budgetary restraint and prison safety," the report said.

Last year's state budget cut less from the corrections department — 5.5 percent — than from all but four of Alaska's other 18 departments and agencies.

Alaska is facing a budget crisis, and Walker said Monday that his administration would keep looking for savings in the $280 million department budget, "but not at the expense of the safety of those that are incarcerated and those that are working there."

Marquette, the governor's spokesperson, said the report's findings would be considered as Walker's administration plans its budget for next year. But she wouldn't describe the size of any cuts being contemplated, or identify areas that could get extra money.

The cost of preparing the report hasn't been compiled yet, Marquette said. But $15,000 covered the contract with Hanlon, the former FBI employee — who in his previous career was the agent to whom Jim Morrison, lead singer for the rock band The Doors, turned himself in on a felony count of lewd and lascivious behavior.

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