A brother seeks answers over Alaska deaths in custody

State cites privacy laws in what it can share with public

By: - October 14, 2022 4:00 am
James Rider is sitting in an undated photo. He died in early September in Alaska Department of Corrections custody. (Photo provided by Mike Cox)

James Rider is sitting in an undated photo. He died in early September in Alaska Department of Corrections custody. (Photo provided by Mike Cox)

Ever since his brother, 31-year-old James Rider, became the 12th person to die while in Alaska Department of Corrections custody, Mike Cox has been trying to get the department to answer his questions.

“I want to know what their procedures are and how they intend on fixing them, so this doesn’t keep happening,” Cox said.

Alaska State Troopers arrested Rider in Wasilla on Aug. 30 and brought him to Mat-Su Pretrial, a Department of Corrections facility. Six days later, on Sept. 5, he was found in his cell having attempted suicide, according to details in an Alaska State Medical Examiner’s Office report. The medical examiner’s office determines the cause of in-custody deaths. The report, which Rider’s family requested, said Rider was transported to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center where he showed “no signs of recovery” and was pronounced dead on Sept. 9.

Of the 15 people to die in Corrections custody so far this year, at least two have died by suicide – 20-year-old Kitty Douglas, as reported by Alaska Public Media, and Rider. The Alaska Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has identified through its research a third death by suicide, and suspects more, according to an ACLU of Alaska spokesperson. Cox wants to know how Corrections handles people who are suicidal and what’s being done to prevent these deaths from occurring.

“I don’t want it to happen to anybody else’s brother or father or sister or mother or cousin or anybody else. I want policy changes. I want people held accountable for mistakes being made. These are people’s lives. They’re not just criminals sitting in a warehouse. These are people’s family members,” Cox said. 

In response to questions from the Alaska Beacon, state officials cited privacy laws in saying they are limited in what they can say publicly about individuals.

When asked how many of the 15 in-custody deaths this year were due to apparent suicide or are being investigated as suicides, Corrections did not directly answer the question. Instead, Corrections public information officer Betsy Holley said in an email, “in accordance with state statute, the State Medical Examiner releases cause of death.”

When posed with the same question, a spokesperson for the Department of Health – which the State Medical Examiner’s Office is part of – said in an email, the office “does not release death investigation reports, the identity of deceased individuals, or any combination of this information to the public.” This information can only be released to family and law enforcement, he said. 

A brother’s questions

Cox said he has called the Department of Corrections and Mat-Su Pretrial trying to get a hold of facility superintendent Sheri Olsen, or anyone else who might be able to answer his questions.

“We’ve called the various numbers for anybody in the administrative part of the DOC who can maybe answer some questions. I have left messages with everybody from the administration to the guards, and the only person that keeps reaching out and contacting me is the chaplain, who doesn’t have answers,” Cox said. “I would like to talk to the superintendent and know what she’s doing.” 

According to Holley, Corrections can “discuss matters with the personal representative determined by the Court. If Mr. Cox is that individual, he needs to share the paperwork with the facility.” 

Corrections evaluated Rider when he was booked into prison on Aug. 30. He was “placed on a suicide precaution watch” and “remained under precaution for one day,” according to the State Medical Examiner’s Office report. Cox said he already knew this from having talked to Rider a day before he took his life. 

The report said Corrections moved Rider to a different cell with two other inmates. Then, on Sept. 5, Corrections transferred Rider to another cell “where he was the sole individual in the cell.” That evening, he was found in a manner that was deemed “an apparent suicide attempt.” Two suicide notes were in the cell and “there was no suspicion of foul play.” 

“We want to know who signed off on his suicide watch. Who was in the position to put him in there in the first place? Is that an actual doctor who’s doing that? And then, who made the call to move him to a cell by himself within five days of him saying he was suicidal? I think there was a breakdown in procedure,” Cox said. “Somebody dropped the ball. This should have never gotten this far and it should have never happened.”

Their last conversation

When Cox talked to his brother on the phone a day before he took his own life, Cox said Rider described how Corrections conducted suicide precaution watch. Cox said Rider was “stripped naked,” put in a “turtle coat” – also called a suicide smock – to prevent him from hurting himself and thrown in a padded room alone. 

“That’s degrading to do that to somebody who already doesn’t want to live,” Cox said. “When they tell you that they’re suicidal, that is a cry for help; not a cry for torture.” 

Due to that experience, Rider said he would never tell Corrections staff he was suicidal ever again, Cox said. 

Corrections public information officer Holley did not answer specific questions about what happens to a person in prison when they’re placed on suicide watch, but pointed to its policies and procedures on suicide prevention and intervention. 

According to the procedures, all people in custody are screened for potential suicide risk by health care or security staff soon after arrival or booking.  “When a prisoner is identified as being at risk for suicide, the prisoner shall be placed on suicide prevention status,” the procedures state. “Suicide prevention status may be ordered by mental health staff, or if mental health staff are unavailable, by the Superintendent or designee.”

When someone is placed on suicide prevention status, that means “staff shall not leave the prisoner unattended,” and staff shall “remove any items that may be used to inflict harm” and “ensure the prisoner is housed in a suicide prevention cell on the appropriate suicide prevention status.” The procedures state that a suicide prevention cell is “as suicide resistant as reasonably possible, free of obvious protrusions and that provides full visibility.” 

Suicide prevention status “shall be removed as soon as the prisoner no longer presents at risk of self-injury or suicide,” according to the procedures. The order for removal should be documented on a form, which is completed by the mental health staff. When a mental health staff is unavailable, a member of the nursing staff, in consultation with the psychiatric provider, can also discontinue suicide prevention status. 

Holley noted, which the Beacon has reported before, “DOC takes every death seriously. DOC remands nearly 30,000 individuals a year. Unfortunately inmates are (an) exceptionally ill and complex patient population. The Department takes a multidisciplinary approach to ensure the safety of individuals within our custody that includes security, medical, treatment and support staff.”

“It cannot be stressed enough that DOC recognizes that every prisoner is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son,” Holley added. “Whether it be a medical emergency, a mental health crisis or potential death, staff members know each inmate and respond to each trauma with respect and professionalism.” 

A request for preserving evidence

Cox and his family are working with the ACLU of Alaska to ensure that all records and other types of evidence regarding Rider’s death are preserved. He wants the phone call he had with his brother to be saved. 

“I don’t want them destroying any records of what happened,” Cox said.

That includes any videos relevant to his brother’s death. “I want to see these videos. I want other people to see these videos to know that this is how they treat people. Or don’t treat them. They neglect them,” Cox said. “They throw them in a cell alone, which is crazy to me.”

According to its death of prisoner policies and procedures, Corrections does certain things “following the unexpected death of a prisoner.” This includes photographing the death scene “from as many angles and perspectives as possible” and photographing all property removed by the Alaska State Troopers, which investigates every in-custody death, including any documents such as suicide notes; identifying and securing documentation of any suicide precautions; ensuring that all staff involved with the death or death scene, including medical staff, complete a special incident report; and securing all medical records at the institution and a number of other institutional logs. 

An interim policy and procedures memo from 2017 clarifies how video evidence is treated. It says the superintendent “shall immediately preserve all video recordings of the prisoner’s death scene including all video evidence leading up to the death.” At a minimum, video of the 24 hours preceding the death until the death scene is released by the troopers must be preserved. It also says that any evidence or video identified as relevant to the death or investigation “is preserved indefinitely,” or as directed by the troopers. 

An offer to other families

The more I find out, my anger takes over my sorrow and my grief that I have for losing my little brother. I'm mad this happened. It should have never come to this.

– Mike Cox

Cox lives with a lot more than grief for his brother’s death.

“The more I find out, my anger takes over my sorrow and my grief that I have for losing my little brother. I’m mad this happened. It should have never come to this,” he said. 

Cox’s anger isn’t just for his brother’s death, but for other in-custody deaths that he believes could have been avoided. Rider was Corrections’ 12th in-custody death of the year through early September. Two more individuals died after a short time in Corrections custody later that month. Corrections reported its 15th death on Oct. 3. Of these deaths, 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. 

“Unless it was an actual, like, heart attack or something that is totally unavoidable, then maybe I could understand. But I think all these deaths are neglect,” Cox said. 

Cox is determined to learn more about how and why his brother died, but he also wants to offer anything he’s learned about this process to other families going through the same thing.  

“Anything that’s going to help other families or other people. James was a giver, like, gave everything. He may not have had much but he would have given you the shirt off his back, and I think we’re going to carry that on in his name.”

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering self-harm or suicide, you can call or text 988 to access a trained crisis counselor.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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