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Wrongful death suits pile up against Alaska prison system

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published June 11, 2016

Two families seeking answers about their loved ones' deaths behind bars have sued the Alaska Department of Corrections in June, bringing the total number of wrongful death lawsuits filed this year against the state's prison system to three.

"It's not really about the money. It's about them taking responsibility and changing the way they do things. If that means we have to hit them in the pocketbook, so be it," said Janine Canul, the sister of Mark Canul.

The family of Mark Canul filed their civil complaint against the department on June 1.

Canul was discovered unconscious in a shared cell on Dec. 11. He was pronounced dead about two hours after he'd been found. An autopsy determined Canul was strangled, and his 20-year-old cellmate James Clinton was charged with murder.

The complaint lists Jason Skala as the attorney representing the Canuls. Skala is one of two lawyers involved in the wrongful death lawsuit of Mark Bolus, the third such case against DOC.

The second lawsuit filed this month, on June 3, involves the death of Kirsten Simon, 33, who left behind two children, according to her mother. She was found dead in a booking cell at the Anchorage jail on June 6, 2014.

Simon was the fourth inmate to die in DOC custody in the span of several months in 2014. Those deaths prompted calls for independent reviews; the department said at the time the deaths weren't out of the ordinary since an average of 10 to 12 people die in Alaska jails each year.

But the plaintiffs behind the two most recent lawsuits said their family members shouldn't have died, and they would like to see the state take responsibility for its actions, or rather, its inaction.

In both lawsuits the families, through their attorneys, make several claims of negligence. The jail employees weren't properly trained or they failed to adequately supervise the inmates, they allege.

"It's a tragedy that this can happen in this day and age," said Cea Anderson, Simon's mother. "We don't live in a Third World country where they torture people and don't let them out. We live in the USA. People are dying in our jails right now and they're supposed to be corrected, not be given a death sentence."

The complaint says Simon was taken into custody on June 5, 2014, and placed in a cell that at one point held three other inmates. The next morning, she started to feel ill. She vomited and urinated on her mattress. Her cellmates were moved and she was alone in the cell by 2 p.m., according to the complaint.

When the last cellmate was removed from the cell at 2 p.m. to attend a court hearing, Simon "told a guard that she was very sick, could not stop throwing up, and that she needed to see a nurse," the complaint says.

The prison's medical facility wasn't far from Simon's cell, but a guard refused to let her go, instead instructing her to move her mattress closer to the cell's toilet, according to the complaint.

Janitorial staff cleaned up urine and vomit seeping underneath the door of Simon's cell around 5 p.m. but no one checked on her, according to the complaint. It'd be another hour and 30 minutes before a guard noticed Simon's skin had turned blue, it says.

Some of the details of her death were gathered from recently obtained DOC videos. The process to get the footage was "very protracted," said attorney Moshe Zorea.

"We saw (the videos) for the first time in the last month, which helped us file our lawsuit," Zorea said. "From my perspective, having practiced here for nearly a third of century in Anchorage, it's a tragedy, number one. Secondly, it's a shameful embarrassment to the state. It's outrageous what went on. The disregard for human life is appalling."

Mark Canul's troubled life is briefly laid bare in his family's lawsuit – a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis at 19 followed by years of difficulty in finding stable housing, and run-ins with the law. His final incarceration was due to failing to leave the bus station when asked, court records show.

Nine days before his death, an Anchorage district judge issued an order stating Canul was not competent to go through regular court proceedings and Alaska State Troopers should take him to Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

He was never moved. Instead, he was placed in a cell with a 20-year-old homeless man with mental health problems of his own. (Clinton was assaulted in an abandoned house in downtown Anchorage in September 2013, an incident that put him in a coma and left him with cognitive delays).

The lawsuit doesn't detail the murder. Clinton, according to his charges, told investigators he killed Canul. There was no surveillance camera inside their cell, according to DOC.

Canul's family says the department is responsible for setting the murder in motion through its negligence. "(DOC) negligently breached its duties owed to (Mark Canul) by negligently exposing him to unreasonable risk of harm from its employees and/or other inmates," the lawsuit reads.

"I'm hoping they can admit that the system isn't working. That they have to go back and review their policies and procedures, especially when it comes to mentally ill people housed in their facilities," Janine Canul said.

When asked if either death had caused changes to current policies, DOC spokesperson Corey Allen-Young said the death of any inmate is taken seriously, and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Canul and Simon were being reviewed.

"(We) are working on ways to improve the treatment and care of offenders," he said.