Crime & Courts

As people die in Alaska prisons, reform advocates are calling for independent investigation

Prison reform advocates are calling on Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to order an independent review of the state Department of Corrections. The department recently reported its 15th in-custody death this year. William Hensley III, 34, died on Sunday at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla after a month in custody.

With this death, the Department of Corrections matches the highest number of in-custody deaths it has seen in the past decade. In 2015, 15 people died in the department’s custody.

“These are people and they’re dying at an alarming rate,” said Angela Hall, founder of Supporting Our Loved Ones Group, which provides peer support for families of incarcerated people. “We’re in the dark a lot of times about why these deaths are occurring.”

Hall is also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska’s Prison Reform Action Network. Both Hall and the ACLU of Alaska want to see an independent review of the Department of Corrections, similar to the administrative review then-Gov. Bill Walker requested in 2015, which found numerous problems contributing to deaths within the state’s prisons and jails.

“You have to look at the system holistically because other conditions of confinement issues can lead to dangerous situations for incarcerated people and staff,” said Megan Edge, communications director for the ACLU of Alaska and director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project.

“There are people dying in DOC custody. This is not a one-off situation; it’s related to other things and how the system is holistically functioning,” she said.

The ACLU of Alaska Prison Project, which launched last month, is developing a response plan.

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“We are working with families whose loved ones have died in state prisons and jails and working to contact more. We are coordinating our efforts with other legal partners and community members. Together, we hope to find answers and develop meaningful solutions that put an end to the practices that have allowed 15 people, who were not sentenced to death, to die in the Alaska prison system,” Edge said.

Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email Tuesday, “The Governor’s office has not received a request from the ACLU of Alaska for a review of DOC,” and did not respond when asked if a review is something the governor’s office would consider doing in response to the high number of in-custody deaths.

Advocate wants answers

While some deaths of people in incarceration is expected, Hall said what’s been happening recently is different and concerning.

“It seems to be that a lot of these recent ones haven’t been there very long and so we don’t know what the cause is. It seems like there might be an issue with how people are being funneled into the jails and into the prisons, when they really probably need to be treated for health issues,” she said.

Of the 15 deaths to occur in custody so far this year, several individuals have been in their 20s or 30s and died after only a short time in state care. Two deaths in August occurred after less than 24 hours.

From the time someone is initially arrested to when they’re transferred to the Department of Corrections to being in the department’s care, Hall suspects there are issues that need to be addressed.

“I’m curious as to where this breakdown is occurring? Is it when they’re initially taken into custody? Or is it when they get transferred to DOC?” she said. “We’re not just supposed to ignore the fact that these folks may have some mental health issues or medical issues that need addressing, and not just stick them in a jail cell or a prison cell and ignore the fact that they may be really ill.”

Like several others to die in corrections custody this year, Hensley was unsentenced. He had been in custody since Sept. 1, according to the department’s press release. About half the people in custody in Corrections facilities are unsentenced.

“This is really disturbing because these people haven’t even been convicted and tried or sentenced for a crime, and here they are dying in custody,” Hall said.

Corrections internally reviews each death

The Alaska State Troopers investigate every in-custody death and the State Medical Examiner Office determines the cause. Citing confidentiality, the Department of Corrections does not release medical information.

In addition to the troopers, the corrections department conducts its own confidential internal 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.

“DOC takes every death seriously which is why we conduct an internal review to ensure policies and best practices are followed. Each death that occurs in a DOC facility profoundly affects staff and inmates alike,” Betsy Holley, Alaska Department of Corrections public information officer, said in an email.

Holley said the department remands close to 30,000 individuals each year, “many of whom enter our facilities with preexisting, and in some cases, very complicated medical, mental health and substance use related issues.”

Holley said people who are incarcerated in state facilities are “an exceptionally ill and complex patient population.”

Corrections makes every effort to meet the needs of the population by assessing an individual’s needs on intake, upon request from those within and outside our system, when transfers occur and throughout each individual’s incarceration, Holley said.

“DOC has constitutional and statutory obligations to provide health care to offenders who are placed in the custody of Alaska DOC,” she said.

“We have a variety of healthcare professionals who are trained to recognize and treat symptoms of seriously complex medical issues that are further complicated by years of substance abuse and lack of access to adequate healthcare. The Department is constantly looking at ways to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the individuals in our custody.”

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.

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