Administration says Corrections deaths not ‘unusual,’ ACLU says it’s deflecting responsibility

By: - October 17, 2022 7:30 pm
The entrance to the Anchorage Correctional Complex is seen on Aug. 29, 2022. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The entrance to the Anchorage Correctional Complex is seen on Aug. 29, 2022. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on Monday that none of the 15 people to die in Alaska Department of Corrections custody in 2022 so far “died as a result of others." (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

None of the 15 people to die in Alaska Department of Corrections custody in 2022 so far “died as a result of others,” according to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Acting Corrections Commissioner Jen Winkelman also said the deaths were not “unusual.”

“The investigations of deaths indicate that none of these inmates at this time have died as a result of others; in other words, murders or otherwise inappropriate dealings with the individuals in prison,” Dunleavy said at the beginning of a press conference Monday. 

The Alaska State Troopers division investigates every in-custody death. John Skidmore, deputy attorney general for the Alaska Department of Law in the Criminal Division, said those deaths are investigated in the same way that officer-involved shootings are investigated.

“And all of those investigations then are referred over to the Office of Special Prosecutions when there’s ever any concern that it may rise to the level of any sort of criminal conduct. And what I can tell you is that today, we do not have any cases at this time that have presented themselves as rising to the level of criminal conduct,” Skidmore said.

Megan Edge said the governor and his administration are downplaying the severity of the deaths and are deflecting responsibility. Edge is communications director for the ACLU of Alaska and director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project.

“Just because somebody’s life wasn’t taken at the hands of another individual does not mean their life wasn’t taken because of failures in the system. That doesn’t address concerns about the medical screening process, the system being overburdened, mental health; it doesn’t address any of those issues. All that tells me is that somebody else’s hands did not cause that person’s death. It does not mean the system is not responsible for their dying,” Edge said.

Edge said it was disappointing that the governor and his staff didn’t offer solutions or proactive plans of what they’ll do to keep people safe and prevent further deaths.

The ACLU of Alaska on Friday formally requested that Dunleavy initiate an independent review of the deaths of Alaskans while in Corrections custody. Dunleavy did not address the request at the press conference Monday. Governor spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email afterward, “The ACLU request was received, and it will be responded to in due time.”

Edge said the ACLU of Alaska is working with other members of the legal community to figure out a litigation strategy. 

Fifteen people have died while in Corrections custody so far this year, which is the highest number of deaths in custody since 2015. Nine of these 15 people have died since Aug. 4. 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. At least two have died by suicide – 20-year-old Kitty Douglas, as reported by Alaska Public Media, and 31-year-old James Rider. The ACLU of Alaska has identified through its research a third death by suicide, and suspects more. Several who died this year had not been sentenced.

Acting Corrections Commissioner Winkelman said the deaths are not unusual.

“While it’s unfortunate to have any death, it is not unusual and it is not a reflection on our staff’s ability to care. We have over 30,000 people that enter and leave our facilities every year, and it’s often a very sick population. Eighty percent have not had medical care within the prior year. The average number of deaths over the last 10 years is nearly 12 deaths per year,” Winkelman said.

Deputy Attorney General Skidmore also said federal law prohibits the state from giving details of why a person died “because that gets into their personal medical histories.” 

“Under federal law, it prohibits any provider of medical services, which includes the Department of Corrections, from disclosing information about people’s health records. And so we’re not allowed to go into the details of what sort of ailment or illness someone may have had,” he said. 

Dunleavy emphasizes that the issue of deaths in Corrections custody “is taken very seriously by this administration, by the individuals that work for this administration.”

“All of these investigations will be thorough. And, again, we will follow all applicable law and we will make sure that we don’t violate anyone’s privacy rights,” Dunleavy said.

Edge said protecting privacy is important and critical, “but also when people are dying pretrial, they’re denied their right to due process, they’re denied their right to equal protection, they’re denied their right to rehabilitation. So there’s other rights here that people don’t have once they’ve died.”

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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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