Janet Minock got a knock on her apartment door the morning of Aug. 23. It was two Anchorage Police Department officers telling her that her 35-year-old daughter, Nastashia Minock, was dead.
According to Janet Minock, the police officers told her this: Nastashia was found unresponsive at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center around 1:30 a.m. Aug. 23. They started CPR and called the paramedics, who worked on her until about 2:30 a.m. They couldn’t revive her and pronounced her dead.
“I asked them, ‘Why did this happen? How did it happen?’ And they said, ‘We have no information,’” Minock said.
They gave her a business card with the name of an Alaska state trooper on it and said to call him if she had any questions. She called and so did her daughter June Alick.
“And we’ve been trying and we can’t get him and they’re not calling us back. We’re just going in circles here, it seems like, getting no answers,” Minock said. “So, I don’t know what’s happened. Why was she found? I mean they should have been watching her. I’m starting to get mad because they won’t tell me anything about what’s happened to her.”
Nastashia Minock is one of two people who’ve died this month after only one day in Department of Corrections custody. She was brought in on Aug. 22 at 6:43 a.m. and was pronounced dead on Aug. 23 at 2:35 a.m. at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.
Minock and Wilson were each in the care of the Alaska Department of Corrections for less than 24 hours.
Janet Minock and others want to know whether the state is doing what is necessary to prevent deaths like these. And they want to know if the public is getting a full picture of what is going on inside corrections facilities.
“Deaths happening so quickly is not normal,” said Megan Edge, communications director for the ACLU of Alaska and director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project. “These are young people. I have a lot of questions. It’s absolutely not normal.”
Some of her questions include: Did these people have mental health concerns or issues? Did they have drug addiction or alcohol addiction? Did they have pre-existing medical conditions? What were their conditions in custody? Were they in isolated cells? Were they on suicide watch? Were they detoxing?
“There are a lot of unknown variables here, and I want to know more and I think DOC is responsible for sharing more,” she said.
Another person, David Bristow, 62, died this month at Anchorage Correctional Complex within 18 days of being taken into custody. According to a Corrections press release, Bristow was taken into custody on July 21 and pronounced dead on Aug. 8.
Of the 10 deaths of people in Department of Corrections custody so far in 2022, four have taken place in August.
Corrections reporting of deaths is inconsistent
In the past few years, several people have died in Corrections custody within a day, days or a few weeks of being taken into custody, according to information provided in department press releases.
The majority of them took place in 2020. That year, Corrections saw 14 deaths total, though Corrections only reported nine of them. “During COVID, there was concern that the Department would violate HIPAA, so while we tracked all deaths, not all were sent as press releases,” wrote Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Betsy Holley. COVID-19 was a contributing factor to five deaths in 2020, one death in 2021 and one death in 2022, wrote Holley.
In practice, Corrections said, it issues a release for every death when legally possible. There are gaps though.
For instance, the first two deaths to take place in Corrections custody this year – those of Lawrence Lobdell and Luke Dennis – were not reported at all, either by Corrections or the Alaska State Troopers, which is the agency that investigates all deaths that occur in Corrections custody. Holley said that was an oversight.
The third, fourth and fifth deaths in 2022 – those of Kitty Douglas, 20; Leefisher Tukrook, 28; and Jarvis Sours, 46 – were reported by the Troopers, though the dates of when they entered custody are not listed. The rest of the 10 deaths this year – those of James Wheeler, Wilson, Bristow, Minock and Robert Vann – were reported by Corrections.
Corrections did issue releases for a number of deaths that took place within days or weeks of the person being put into custody.
William Olsen, Jr., 48, was taken into custody on Nov. 19, 2020, and had a medical emergency at Anchorage Correctional Complex the following day. He was transported to Alaska Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on Nov. 25.
Edwin Clawson, 38, was found unresponsive in his cell on March 18, 2020, two days after going into custody. He was pronounced dead on March 22 at Mat-Su Regional Hospital. The Corrections release said the death was being investigated as a suicide.
Zenon Habros, 61, was pronounced dead at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome about two weeks after going into Corrections custody.
Aaron Lamont, 27, died on July 13, 2020, after less than three months in Corrections custody.
There are other people in recent years whose deaths took place soon after going into custody. In 2019, Noah Price, 23, went into Corrections custody on May 5 and died on June 26 at Wildwood Correctional Center. In 2021, Gregory Rendon-Duarte, 39, was remanded on March 25 and died on May 13 at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility.
Family and friends called her Nus
The last time Janet Minock and June Alick, Nastashia’s mom and sister, saw her was on Aug. 20, three days before the knock on Minock’s door. Nastashia had visited her mom at her apartment. Other family members were there. Nastashia was in good spirits and she stayed for a while. Before she left, she hugged everyone and said she loved them.
“She was happy and laughing. And now she’s gone,” Minock said, crying. “And we’re trying to figure out how and why. And we’re trying to figure out who’s investigating and who’s taking care of this. We need to know what really happened.”
Nastashia Minock was born in Bethel on February 14, 1987, and raised in Pilot Station. She moved to Anchorage in 2004. Family and close friends called her Nus. Her favorite color was pink and she loved going on walks, Alick said.
“She just enjoyed being around family and kids, and she loved watching cartoons,” Alick said.
“She’s always laughing and joking, telling stories. If she saw you being down, she tried to cheer you up,” Minock added.
Nastashia was an alcoholic, they said. Her struggle with alcohol got worse when she lost custody of her kids around 2010, Minock said. Nastashia had four children. More recently, Nastashia lived with her mom, then on and off with a boyfriend; otherwise, she was unhoused.
Due to Nastashia’s issues with alcohol, Minock and Alick wonder if her death at Hiland was connected to alcohol withdrawal. They don’t think she was properly monitored while in custody.
“The way they’re saying it is she was found; it doesn’t sound like she was being watched,” Minock said.
Alick said she spent one week in Corrections custody in 2007. “They really didn’t care for the ones that needed help that were going through withdrawal. They just left them alone,” she said.
“They say they take care of them, but they don’t,” said Minock.
State says recent deaths are being treated the same as others
Corrections has an intake screening process to identify medical issues including substance use and withdrawals, Corrections Public Information Officer Holley wrote in an email.
“If we observe signs of use or the prisoner reports current use, additional protocols are in place to identify someone who may be at risk for going through withdrawals and to provide assistance during the withdrawal process,” she wrote.
Staff members use clinical measurements to track withdrawal symptoms. “If a patient’s score reaches a certain level, notification to a medical provider is made for further evaluations. Prisoners who report use or who are observed to be under the influence at remand are referred to substance abuse counselors for additional screening or assessment. DOC has several in house treatment programs that address individuals with varying degrees of substance abuse,” Holley wrote.
How often people in prison are monitored or checked depends on their medical status, according to Holley.
Nastashia Minock was pronounced dead at 2:35 a.m. on Aug. 23. The last security check that was done on her before she was found dead was at 1:40 a.m. Holley wrote. According to the family, that’s around when police said she was found unresponsive. It is not known when she was last checked on prior to being found unresponsive.
Wilson was pronounced dead at 1:20 p.m. on Aug. 5. The last security check on him before he was found dead was at 12:16 a.m. Aug. 5, according to Holley.
When asked if the sudden deaths of Minock or Wilson raised any red flags, Holley wrote, “Every death in DOC is of equal concern, and we treat all in-custody deaths with the same thoroughness and sensitivity.”
“It is important to note that our staff is most often administering lifesaving measures prior to a death,” she wrote.
The Troopers investigate every in-custody death, and the State Medical Examiner’s Office determines the cause of death. Due to confidentiality, Corrections does not release medical information. Holley said Minock’s family would need to contact the State Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what caused her death. Janet Minock and June Alick said they had not been informed of this.
According to Chief Medical Examiner Gary Zientek, the autopsy is typically performed the day after the death but may take four to six weeks or longer to finalize due to how long toxicology results can take. As part of the medical examiner’s review, “we typically review circumstances, scene description and photos, medical history, any other pertinent history.” If a family wants a copy of the autopsy report, they must request one.
In addition to the Troopers, Corrections conducts its own confidential investigation “to determine the cause and circumstances surrounding the death as well as any related deficiencies in policies, procedures or practices,” according to its death of prisoner policy and procedure, which has been in place since July 2014 and, Holley wrote, is currently under review.
After the internal investigation is complete, the department is supposed to issue a press release which provides the State Medical Examiner’s final determination of cause of death as either natural, accident, homicide or suicide. It is unclear if this practice currently takes place; the department’s press release archive does not include any.
Administration disbanded unit aimed at reducing deaths
Megan Edge, communications director for the ACLU of Alaska and director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project which focuses on decarceration and addressing problems within the prison system, has also worked for the Department of Corrections as the public information officer from 2017 to early 2019, when she resigned.
In her experience, when people died so soon after entering custody, Edge said, it’s been “people who are detoxing, people who should have been on some sort of super suicide watch, or were on suicide watch and something failed.”
Edge said people are indeed screened, but the process is “basic” and “not super detailed.” If Corrections is waiting for someone to become sober, that person is oftentimes put into a “dry cell,” which Edge likens to solitary confinement. “That’s mostly how they detox people unless they’ve changed something,” Edge said. Holley wrote that people are not put into a “dry cell.”
When Edge worked for Corrections, then-Commissioner Dean Williams had put in place an internal professional conduct unit. Williams was one of the authors of a 2015 report on the Department of Corrections that found numerous problems contributing to deaths within the state’s prisons and jails.
“One of the reasons the professional conduct unit was put into place was because things were not being adequately investigated, sometimes trooper responses can be incredibly slow, or they’ll just take a report that the staff put together and say, ‘This is what happened,’” Edge said, adding that it can be hard to get people to talk to troopers.
When the new administration started, Edge said, the professional conduct unit was discontinued.
In search of answers
Besides grieving the loss of their daughter and sister, Janet Minock and June Alick are trying to find out information. They’ve made several calls to the Alaska State Troopers and to the Department of Corrections since learning of Nastashia’s death. As of Tuesday, a week after the death, they said, they still hadn’t gotten any calls back.
“They really need to look into this,” Alick said. “How they take care of inmates, especially when they’re on drugs or alcohol. They really need to watch them because these are people regardless of what race they are – doesn’t matter.”
“They shouldn’t be treated any less than they are already because they have issues too in their lives. And they shouldn’t be treated like animals, just thrown in a cage and just be left alone and learn to fend for themselves with their situation, especially with the withdrawals. They’re ignored and I think that’s a very sick thing to do.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.