Crime & Courts

Anchorage correctional officers pepper sprayed prisoners and then left them inside a van, investigation says

Anchorage-based state correctional officers pepper sprayed three incarcerated men inside a van and then closed the doors, leaving them to inhale the chemicals for between seven to 18 minutes, according to a new report from the Alaska state ombudsman.

The report, which was released Monday, reviewed the 2017 incident in detail and concluded that the officers’ actions were “not reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain order” and “therefore an excessive use of force.”

After being pepper sprayed, the men were not allowed to shower or change clothes for an extended period of time, and one of the men went two days without showering or being provided clean clothing, according to the report.

The ombudsman’s investigation also found that the Department of Corrections’ employee misconduct investigation and disciplinary process was ineffective in holding staff accountable.

The corrections department did not dispute a majority of the report’s findings.

On Nov. 21, 2017, the three men had been imprisoned at the Anchorage Correctional Complex’s west wing and were in the process of being transported to the east wing after reportedly assaulting another person who was incarcerated, the ombudsman’s investigation said.

An officer transporting the men overheard one of them say he planned to punch anyone assigned as a roommate to avoid sharing a space, according to the report. The officer conferred with a lieutenant when the van arrived at the east wing of the building.

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Nine officers ended up going out to the van and the report said security footage showed one officer was opening the door to the van while a sergeant deployed pepper spray into it, aiming at one man. None of the men presented a threat to the officers or to property, the report said.

The officers backed away from the van after the door was closed and left the incarcerated men inside, removing them individually after seven to 18 minutes, according to the report.

One of the men was allowed to shower and given clean clothes more than an hour after the incident, but the other two men waited much longer, according to the report.

The corrections department policy requires staff to report incidents involving excessive force, but the ombudsman’s report said that none of the officers involved did so.

The department’s now-defunct professional conduct unit and human resources investigated after the incident, but the ombudsman’s report said “these processes did not result in meaningful accountability for all of the officers involved in the incident.”

Findings from those investigations were reviewed by the ombudsman’s office, but were not publicly released because they contain personnel matters that are protected by state law. The report did not say whether or not any officers were disciplined as a result of the incident or if they are still employed by the corrections department. Betsy Holley, the corrections department’s public information officer, said the department could not provide that information because personnel matters are confidential.

Information about the department’s investigation was never provided to the three incarcerated men because it was considered confidential. All three men had filed grievance reports related to the incident.

The Department of Corrections had consultations with the Ombudsman Kate Burkhart in 2018 and 2019 and officials said the use-of-force policy was being revised. Burkhart said over the phone Monday that the department was still working on the policy, but the ombudsman’s report was released because those changes had not yet been made. Holley said by email Tuesday that the corrections department “is committed to ensuring the policy is updated and the appropriate training is taking place.”

The report included recommendations for the corrections department that included crafting a specific policy related to use and decontamination procedures involving chemical agents, consistent reviews of such incidents, additional staff training and the addition of body cameras. The corrections department did not respond to a majority of the recommendations.

“That is what it is. We don’t have enforcement authority,” Burkhart said. “So we make recommendations and we make the best ones possible so agencies want to implement them, but it’s up to the agency whether they want to and how they want to respond.”

The incident occurred under a different administration and corrections commissioner, Holley said, but the department “will continue to review the report and make necessary changes to policy and training to ensure an incident like this does not happen again.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Betsy Holley, the public information officer for the Department of Corrections, that were received after this article was initially published.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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