Candidates for Alaska governor differ on how to handle deaths in state corrections custody
Contenders lay out positions on tribal recognition, housing affordability and public safety
Former Gov. Bill Walker, at right, speaks at Saturday’s gubernatorial candidate forum held at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. The other candidates, from right, are Gov. Mike Dunleavy, former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and former state Rep. Les Gara. Walker is an independent, Gara is a Democrat and Dunleavy and Pierce are Republicans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state has scrutinized the cause of each of the deaths that have occurred in state Department of Corrections custody this year. But the Republican governor’s rivals, Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker, raised grave concerns over the deaths at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ forum for the candidates for governor, which also included Charlie Pierce, another Republican.
Dunleavy said all of the 15 deaths in custody that occurred this year have been investigated, and none were determined to be “at the hands of others, what that’s officers or other inmates.”
He said the administration is always looking at what it can to improve corrections and other parts of state government.
“But we always have, unfortunately, folks that pass away in our care in corrections,” he said. “We always have.”
He said the state would continue to work hard to evaluate the health of those taken into custody.
“Once we find out how these individuals have passed away and release that information to the families, the public will know,” he said. “And I think for the most part, people will realize that most individuals passed away from either health issues or, unfortunately, suicides.”
Gara said the limited information that’s publicly available is raising serious concerns that require more information about the deaths to be made available.
“You do not put a suicidal person in solitary confinement in the cold when they need medical help,” Gara said, adding: “The state knew they were suicidal and put them in solitary confinement and humiliated them. That is not what you do.”
Gara said family members of inmates have asked for videos of what happened. He said the public needs to know what happens “in the light of day.”
“We don’t know what happened yet,” he said. He said releasing the videos isn’t covered by health privacy rules under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“HIPAA does not prevent the public from seeing the videos so that we can figure out what happened so that we can fix this problem. These things matter. We need mental health professionals, not just in prison but across the state,” he said.
Walker, Dunleavy’s predecessor as governor, recalled work his administration did to try to prevent deaths in correctional facilities. That included releasing to the public a video of the death of a man in custody who struggled and was held down by multiple corrections officers. He said he then asked the man who would become the next Department of Corrections commissioner to apologize to the man’s family. He stayed with the family in their village after being snowed in.
“And they were so appreciative of it, and folks told me, ‘If you do that, we’re going to get sued,’ and I said, ‘We should get sued. We absolutely should do that. It’s … wrong,’” Walker recalled, prompting applause from the audience.
The incident and other deaths led Walker’s administration to establish a separate unit to investigate deaths in prison.
“That was taken after we were in office, but we will stand that up again,” he said. “You know, prison is not a rehab facility. People come in with a drug issue and so many of them die in the first couple of days on intake. That’s because of the drug issues. They’re a substitute – we should not be using our prisons as a drug intake facility. We need more facilities to treat those.”
Pierce emphasized the importance of medical evaluations when people enter state custody. He said an open and transparent process should be conducted after every death.
“You shouldn’t go to jail and suffer at the hands of the people that are holding you there,” he said. “So I as governor would make sure that we have a very transparent program.”
Dunleavy said he was honored to sign into law the state’s official recognition of Alaska Native tribes. He also supported a state program to help AFN members navigate through the process of receiving federal funds, including infrastructure money. And he signed into a law a measure allowing the state to enter into education compacts with tribal organizations, which could lead to tribes operating schools.
“We have so much more work to do,” Dunleavy said. “The goal … is to work with AFN and other consortium members, other tribes, Alaska Native corporations, to keep Alaska moving forward.”
Walker said he would pick up with what he was doing in his administration with tribes, including having a tribal liaison in every department of state government. He said he would look at having a state office of tribal relations. And he said there were more compacts the state could enter that would lead to tribes taking on responsibility for more services.
“It’s a historic opportunity, to be working directly in compacting with the tribes,” he said, adding: “Many of the issues that have been discussed on this stage today I believe can be resolved significantly with compacting with the tribes.”
Gara said that tribal recognition is the first step, and tribal justice and tribal equity are the next steps. He has advocated for children in foster care, and he praised the state’s child welfare compact with tribes, which allows children to stay within their extended families. He raised other concerns for tribes.
“How loud do we have to be to say, ‘No Pebble Mine,’ before there’s no Pebble Mine? How loud do we have to be to say we deserve subsistence rights this year? The Department of Fish and Game says the Kuskokwim River, which doesn’t have enough fish, should be open to all Alaskans, from Anchorage and Wasilla,” Gara said.
Pierce said he supports local control and would respect tribal recognition. He said tribal police should be expanded and village public safety officers should be given more responsibilities.
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Debate co-moderator Greg Razo said safe, affordable, quality housing is the foundation for sustainable, health communities. And he noted that it’s not uncommon in rural Alaska to have multiple families and generations living under one roof.
“Overcrowding is projected to continue to increase because the current rate of housing construction is inadequate to meet the expected population growth and negatively impacts the sustainability and health of our Native communities,” Razo said.
He asked the candidates how they would characterize the impacts of inadequate housing and how they would address the crisis.
Gara said housing is one of three crises in the state, along with those in education and mental health. He said the state must make more use of available federal housing and urban development funding to make more housing available.
“We want to do everything on the cheap. We need money in the state again to address our greatest problems,” Gara said, adding that he would solve that by eliminating oil production tax credits.
Pierce addressed housing by saying the state needs partnerships between the private and public sectors. He advocated reducing regulations that affect housing.
“Alaskans need to take control of ourselves. We need to take some responsibility for ourselves,” he said, adding that he would look to work with Native corporations and the federal government.
Dunleavy spoke about how he’s worked on finding housing for teachers since he was a school superintendent in 2001, which has since been expanded statewide. He said that the program should be expanded for police, child welfare workers and those working in other professions.
Dunleavy also said the state could take steps to lower the cost of timber within the state. And he said the administration would work with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to lower interest rates on housing.
Walker talked about how the high costs of energy affects affordability in the state, saying he’s passionate about lowering it. He said that instead of being sold at the highest possible price, fuel that stays in the state be sold at the lowest price. His goal is to reduce gasoline and heating oil prices to $2 a gallon.
“Every growing economy has one thing in common: low-cost energy,” Walker said. “In rural Alaska, the unemployment is like 85% in some of the villages. You can’t bring business there and jobs without lowering the cost of energy. And we will do that aggressively, beginning on Day One.”
AFN supports stable funding for public safety, rather than funding it through grants.
Pierce agreed, saying basing a program on grants sets oneself up for failure. He said this is an area where tribal control is important.
“I would work for budgets where you know what you’re going to be funded, what levels you’re going to be funded, so you can afford to hire people and retain them,” Pierce said.
Gara said he supports having a police officer in every community in the state, saying leaving communities without them is “19th century policing.” He noted that Dunleavy vetoed village public safety officer funding and said he wouldn’t.
Dunleavy pushed back, emphasizing that the VPSO program grew while he was governor. The state also added 40 troopers, six major crimes investigators, two tribal liaisons and an investigator focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people as well as plans to add a second, he said. He said the state’s crime rate is at a 41-year low. “We have lots of work to do – there’s no doubt about it – but we’ve done a tremendous amount,” he said, adding that there was nothing more important to him.
Walker said there was an opportunity to separate the training for the VPSO program from the Alaska State Troopers and make it part of a tribal compact. He added that a program to test rape kits that hadn’t been tested started under his administration.
The forum was held the day after a lawsuit against Pierce alleged he sexual harassed an assistant when he served as Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor. The allegations were not raised during the forum.
It was the last forum that all of the candidates are scheduled to attend. Election Day is Nov. 8.
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