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Jail death highlights urgency of recommended Alaska prison reforms

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2016

Alaska's lawmakers are currently formulating methods for reducing the state's prison population. The Alaska Legislature is set to consider multiple issues during the upcoming session, including whether bail should be required for certain misdemeanor crimes and establishing community resources to help reduce recidivism.

James Clinton, 20, and Mark Canul, 53 -- both of whom suffered from mental health issues -- found themselves locked in a cell together on Dec. 11, when Clinton allegedly "snapped" and killed Canul because he was spitting and "running his mouth," according to court records.

Related: 2 troubled lives collide -- and 1 ends -- in an Anchorage jail cell

The case underscores several of the recommendations from a recent Alaska Criminal Justice Commission report that aim to reduce Alaska's swollen prison population. The report is one of two recent looks into the state's troubled corrections system.

James Clinton had spent longer and longer stints in jail for a string of mostly minor offenses -- primarily trespassing -- in part because he couldn't afford to post the $500 bail in each case. The ACJC report suggests re-examining which cases merit requirement of a cash bond, basing the decision on the likelihood the inmate will appear for subsequent court hearings or re-offend while out of jail.

Canul, meanwhile, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and would have his public assistance taken away every time he was arrested in Anchorage for things like misdemeanor theft and trespassing, according to his sister.

Canul was charged in at least three separate cases at the tail end of 2015, but they'd been dismissed due to his inability to understand criminal proceedings. He and Clinton were placed in a cell that wasn't under surveillance, as they were designated minimum-security prisoners.

That doesn't mean they hadn't caused problems while locked up -- court records show both men had been combative or not fit to attend court proceedings in their most recent cases.

During an interview in November, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said much of the work of the ACJC involves working with the jails and finding out what better suits different inmate populations.

"We haven't cracked the code on how to deal with mental health but we're hoping that will emerge through further discussion," Coghill said.

Two officials appointed by the governor to review the policies and practices of the Alaska Department of Corrections after several high-profile deaths of inmates concluded that many social problems are being dumped on the Department of Corrections' doorstep. DOC allocates resources for noncriminal holds, people jailed but not charged with a crime, like intoxicated or mentally ill individuals.

For Canul's part, a judge had ordered he be moved to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute nine days before he was killed in the cell.

Alaska State Troopers, who were tasked with taking Canul to API, are generally informed by the psychiatric institute when space is available to bring someone over from the jail.

"(The Department of Public Safety) had not received notice from API to bring Mr. Canul to API," said troopers spokesperson Megan Peters.

Sarana Schell, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said in an email that API performs two roles: stabilizing people in crisis and "restoring people charged with crimes to mental competency so they can understand and participate in court proceedings." The latter patients come second when considering who to take in, she said.

Patients generally have to wait for a room at the psychiatric institute, Schell said. The goal is a wait of no longer than a week, and beds were reconfigured earlier this year to more consistently meet that goal, she said.

API is also understaffed -- so much so that patients have been flown to Juneau and Fairbanks for treatment due to a shortage of doctors.

"The emergency psychiatric system is currently stretched, but API works closely with a number of hospitals in the state to ensure that the psychiatric needs of Alaskans are being met," Schell said. "While API has temporarily closed some beds to maintain staffing ratios, there are beds available currently, and temporary psychiatrists are due to begin after the holidays. This will allow API to reopen beds that are currently closed."

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