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Under scrutiny, DOC makes public new policies on prisoner deaths

The Alaska Department of Corrections made public for the first time Tuesday a new policy governing prisoner deaths.

Until now, the public has had no way to know what the DOC does after an inmate dies under its care because the official policy was classified and hidden from public view.

The new policy says the DOC will notify next of kin, release information to the public and conduct an internal investigation into the cause and circumstances of the death, and also "deficiencies in policies, procedures and practices" that may have contributed. It spells out in detail the steps that must be taken in such an investigation.

The department has been under pressure to explain more about the way it handles inmate deaths since April, when a 20-year-old mentally ill man named Davon Mosley was found dead in his cell. By the end of June, four other inmates would die unexpectedly.

Elihu Gillespie was strangled by his cellmate. Mark Bolus, a 24-year-old with schizophrenia, committed suicide in solitary confinement.

Kirsten Simon and Amanda Kernak, both battling substance abuse, died in separate incidents. In both cases their cellmates reported hours of retching and illness without medical attention.

Families of the inmates said they were able to learn little about the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths.

At least two families have retained attorneys and say they plan to sue.

In July, Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt told a packed room of lawmakers, family members, correctional officers and reporters at an emotional legislative hearing on the inmate deaths that he'd welcome more transparency -- with limits -- in his department.

The first step, he said, would be declassifying the death-of-a-prisoner policy.

"Releasing information was the main problem here. The number of deaths was not anomalous nor was the cause of the death. We've seen all this before," he said in an interview later. "But when we have family members where we're saying 'No comment' or 'We're not going to talk yet,' that legitimately creates a lot of concern."

The DOC maintains that the deaths are not anomalous because the prisoner population is often in poor health.

The new policy had been under development with the Department of Law for weeks.

• Codifies a standard approach to investigating deaths, including creating a "death investigation team" and mandating a report analyzing circumstances around the incident.

Ensures that the department analyzes "sufficiency of security staff actions, response related to the death, whether policies and procedures were followed and whether policies and procedures were sufficient" after a death.

Continues to keep death details from the public, as the investigation report is to be prepared as a "Confidential Attorney-Client Communication" for the Department of Law.

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