Alaska Legislature

Surprise cancellation of a legislative hearing on Alaska prison deaths exposes fissures in the House

On Tuesday, the Alaska House Community and Regional Affairs Committee was scheduled to hear a presentation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska about a record-breaking run of deaths in state prisons and jails.

But after a last-minute procedural objection by Big Lake Republican Rep. Kevin McCabe, the hearing was canceled on the spot, a departure from usual legislative decorum that left the lawmakers involved prickly and the ACLU fuming.

What happened was a bad look for the Legislature, said Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent.

“I don’t think it makes anyone look good when you have a chairperson basically lose a vote in a very public way, in a very embarrassing manner when it could have been talked out beforehand,” said Edgmon.

The hearing was organized by Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat who is a member of the House majority and the chair of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee. McCormick said he had coordinated with the ACLU to hold the presentation because he was concerned about in-custody deaths in his Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta district. Alaska Native people are disproportionately represented in state prison populations, as well as deaths, according to federal data and data from the ACLU.

The ACLU said it had been “ringing the alarm” on in-custody deaths since 2022 and had met with lawmakers previously on the issue, said spokesperson Meghan Barker in an email. The idea was for the ACLU and other panelists to “present to the committee as experts and speak to the impact (of deaths) on incarcerated Alaskans and families who’ve lost loved ones in custody.”

[The unseen driver of Alaska’s record jail deaths: Suicide]


Tuesday’s hearing was meant to begin at 8 a.m., and several representatives of the ACLU sat in the front row of the committee room waiting to speak. Just as the presentation was about to begin, McCabe took the microphone. He objected to the hearing being held, citing concerns that the presentation might cover a wrongful death case the ACLU is currently suing the state of Alaska over.

• • •

[Watch the hearing:]

• • •

McCabe cited an opinion written by the Legislature’s top attorney and issued the previous day that said the Legislature should use caution when discussing matters currently being litigated but gave some discretion to lawmakers.

Committee members voted 4-3 against holding the hearing, and McCormick was forced to end the meeting. All four votes to end the hearing were from House Republicans.

“It’s shameful we use procedure to avoid hard conversations,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent on the committee who voted for the hearing to proceed.

It was embarrassing, McCormick said. Some of the presenters had flown to Juneau specifically for the hearing, he said.

“It’s incredibly difficult for them to get out here and for them to just get shut down like that is really poor process,” McCormick said.

McCormick said the experience made him feel like he’d been “pantsed on the record.” At 26, McCormick is the youngest lawmaker in Juneau this session, and he said he feels “a lot of anxiety about watching my Ps and Qs. I almost feel like I have to compensate for my age. It is sometimes like operating in a hostile environment. I’ve never been super public with that. But I think today is kind of just an articulation of that to an extent.” McCabe is part of the 23-member House GOP majority caucus, which has shown sharp ideological divisions and heated, personal fights between legislators. McCormick is one of three non-Republican members, who represent rural Alaska districts.

McCabe said he took some of the blame for what he called “poor communication.”

“I didn’t get a chance to talk to CJ, and I made him look like an ass,” he said. “That part was my fault.”

On Wednesday, McCabe said his objection centered on a legal opinion from the Legislature’s legal services office that said matters currently under active litigation shouldn’t be “discussed or debated” in a legislative body.

In August, the ACLU of Alaska sued the state in a wrongful death lawsuit over the death of James Rider, who died by suicide at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility in September 2022.

Asked whether the ACLU took issue with the legal opinion, Barker said the organization’s “concern is making sure that Alaskans are able to petition their government, come before elected officials and have procedural rules applied equitably.”

The hearing wouldn’t have focused just on that single case, according to the ACLU.

McCabe said he still wants a discussion to happen, but doesn’t think the ACLU understands the Department of Corrections has a “tough job to do.”

“Frankly,” McCabe said, “I think the ACLU knew what they were doing and they took advantage of us as a committee to try to adjudicate a portion of their case in … and we just can’t do that.”

Family members of Alaskans who have died in prison in recent years were among those listening in, said Jacqueline Friedman Shepherd, an attorney who had been set to testify about her work investigating in-custody deaths.


“This hearing would have shown them that people in power care about incarcerated Alaskans,” Friedman Shepherd said. “The committee members who voted against this hearing instead showed them disrespect and their willingness to skirt the issue, rather than listen to hard realities that Alaskans are facing.”

The ACLU later posted Friedman Shepherd’s planned remarks under the heading, “The testimony that won’t be heard: deaths in custody.

Later the dustup made it to the House floor, where Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who was not part of the committee, said “using rules and procedure to circumvent the process and silence debate and discussion is not just anti-democratic, it is harmful to democracy.”

McCabe responded with a rhetorical shrug: “Rules are there for a reason and I think we need to use them,” he said.

Reporter Michelle Theriault Boots reported from Anchorage and Sean Maguire reported from Juneau.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at