Skip to main Content

Shameful treatment of incapacitated man indicts Alaska system

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published November 17, 2015

It would have been better for Gilbert Joseph had he never been placed in "protective custody" by the state that summer night in Fairbanks.

If so, he might be alive today.

Joseph had been arrested and cited dozens of times over the past 35 years, usually on misdemeanor charges, but it was not a fresh allegation of criminal wrongdoing that landed him in a cell at the Fairbanks Correction Center after 11:45 p.m. on Aug. 26. He had been deposited there to keep from getting hurt.

The 57-year-old had been drinking hand sanitizer, which contains enough alcohol to make anyone senseless, and the jail staff could not get a breath alcohol reading. He couldn't walk. He couldn't stand.

Jail is no place for a man in that condition. But we haven't come up with better places for men and women in that condition in Fairbanks and many other communities. The law requires people to be held for up to 12 hours to keep them safe.

His pants fell down as the jail staff dragged him into a cell, where there were two other people. He died at about 1:35 a.m., his pants still down.

The Alaska State Troopers news release the next day said, "No foul play is suspected at this time."

It sure as hell should have been.

The negligence that led to his death is one of the haunting incidents detailed in the investigation of the state jail system released Monday by Gov. Bill Walker. Its release coincided with the removal of Ron Taylor as commissioner of the corrections department and his replacement, on an interim basis, by former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.

The 20-page report mentions a range of problems—from understaffing to lack of training—and provides details on the deaths of Joseph and five others while in state custody.

Had Joseph been better connected in life, he would never have been drinking hand sanitizer. Had he been better connected in life, his death would never have been treated in such a casual manner. He had been locked up, after all, for his own protection.

The investigation found the staff of the Fairbanks jail gave incomplete information about Joseph's death at first, saying, "there had been no suspicious or aggressive behavior toward Mr. Joseph."

Multiple members of the jail staff and a state trooper either didn't notice or chose not to notice that on a grainy video, one of the people locked up with Joseph was seen assaulting him.

"I did not observe any physical acts of aggression towards Joseph or any suspicious activity in the video," a trooper said.

There must be some reason why the investigators looking at the same video saw a crime in progress.

When a clearer video turned up later, for unexplained reasons, "two correctional officers can be seen standing outside the cell door while a cellmate places his hand over Mr. Joseph's mouth for one to two seconds."

"Later, after Mr. Joseph had been pushed onto his stomach, the cellmate slides his hand under Mr. Joseph's face, possibly obstructing his airway, and holds it there for about 15 seconds," the report says.

What did the state do to protect Joseph?

"An officer appears to have seen Mr. Joseph get assaulted and went in to confront the cellmate, but did not act to prevent or intervene in further assaults," the report said. The victim was assaulted four more times, according to the video.

The report says that as of Nov. 13, "no personnel investigation has been initiated." That has changed, but the Department of Corrections and the troopers should answer for the delay.

Alaska removed "drunk in public" from the catalog of crimes in 1972, but state law requires peace officers to place those incapacitated by alcohol and other drugs in "protective custody."

After all this time, we have yet to develop programs and facilities to deal with people who are incapacitated by alcohol and other drugs.

This is a devastating report that Dean Williams and Joe Hanlon have produced, identifying serious problems that need to be fixed.

One obvious step is to end the practice of using jails to warehouse people who are so intoxicated they can't fend for themselves. The report also details the death of a Juneau inmate who had been locked up Aug. 14 for his own good and died the next morning.

Putting incapacitated people in jail puts them at risk and creates an unreasonable burden for the guards and other staff who aren't medical professionals and whose main job is to deal with people who are in jail to protect the public.

It will cost money, perhaps a lot of it, but removing jails from this role would "improve prison safety and reduce risk to affected individuals, prison staff and the prison system," the report said.

What happened to Joseph is a crime, an indictment of our system.

It is shameful that "protective custody" placed him in the room where he died. It's shameful that the initial investigations found no reason to suspect foul play when there was proof to the contrary.

After his death, a short obituary ran in the Fairbanks paper about this man who attended St. Matthew's Episcopal Church: "He shoveled the walks at this church and raked the leaves, and sat in the back pew and prayed for us."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments