Two people died in recent days after spending less than two weeks in the custody of the Alaska Department of Corrections as the number of deaths in the state’s incarcerated population approaches the highest level in years.
There have been 14 deaths among people incarcerated in Alaska so far this year.
That’s as many deaths as occurred in all of 2020, the highest total in the past five years — and one that included five COVID-19 deaths, according to corrections officials. Nine people died in custody last year, four died in 2019 and 11 died in 2018.
More broadly, Alaska is on track to see its highest number of in-custody deaths in the past decade, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
There were 15 in-custody deaths during 2015, the highest number reported in a single year during the last decade, according to Megan Edge, ACLU Alaska communications director. The number of fatalities that year sparked an independent review, which found numerous problems that contributed to the deaths, including a lack of medical and mental health care, negligence and excessive force by staff.
Betsy Holley, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the 14 deaths this year are not considered a spike when compared to numbers during the last decade.
“We take every death very seriously, but the fact remains that we deal with a medically fragile population, many of whom enter our facilities with pre-existing, and in some cases, very complicated medical, mental health and substance use related issues,” Holley said in an email.
The two most recent deaths occurred about six days apart this month.
Lewey Andrew Matoomealook, 37, was arrested Sept. 12 on a warrant issued because he was accused of violating the conditions of release set in a July case for misdemeanor charges of theft and trespassing. On Sept. 22, Matoomealook was brought to Alaska Regional Hospital, Holley said.
He died in the hospital three days later, the corrections department said.
Marcus Gillion, 48, was arrested on Sept. 19 on a misdemeanor assault charge. Holley said he was brought to the hospital Monday and died the same day.
Both men had been incarcerated at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, she said.
The corrections department does not release information about the cause of inmate deaths, but said foul play is not suspected in these fatalities. In-custody deaths are reviewed by the Alaska State Troopers and the cause of death is determined by the state medical examiner, according to the department.
Last month, two people died after spending less than a full day in custody.
[Previous coverage: Two people died this month after just one day in Alaska corrections facilities]
Nastashia Minock, 35, died Aug. 23 at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. Austin Wilson, 34, died at the Anchorage Correctional Complex on Aug. 5.
“Historically when we see people die after being in custody a short amount of time, they’re dying in detox when they should be in the hospital, they’re dying of suicide, mental illness, excessive use of force, it’s quite alarming,” Edge said. “Every name that I see pop up, I think about 2015 and what we learned about those deaths. People dying in custody so soon after being incarcerated is not normal, not normal at all, and it’s very concerning.”
Edge said the ACLU is launching an independent investigation into the deaths that occurred this year.