Civil rights group sues Alaska Department of Corrections, seeks investigation into deaths

American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska says systemic change is needed to make prisons safer

By: - September 1, 2023 5:47 pm
This symbol is inside of the Alaska Department of Corrections office on Sept. 7, 2022, in Douglas, Alaska. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

This symbol is inside of the Alaska Department of Corrections office on Sept. 7, 2022, in Douglas, Alaska. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

A national civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Corrections on Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is asking for an independent review of deaths in Alaska Department of Corrections custody.

The organization does not usually join wrongful death suits, said Megan Edge of the ACLU of Alaska. But on Thursday it joined the family of James Rider in a suit seeking damages and a review of the state agency.

“Alaska does not have the death penalty, but 18 people died in Alaska’s prisons last year and we have seen eight so far this year. For these Alaskans, incarceration is a death sentence,” said Edge, the director of the ACLU of Alaska Prison Project, which monitors the state’s criminal legal system.

Edge said the organization is seeking systemic change in Alaska’s prisons, so it is working with families and private attorneys as part of its investigation.

“People are tired of doing wrongful death suits, not because they don’t want justice for the families, but because there’s a bigger issue at play. This keeps happening,” Edge said. “We have this really big issue that started to come to light last, you know, about a year and a half ago about deaths in custody.”

Edge said the ACLU of Alaska has been looking into the deaths for the last year and a half, but it still needs more information. She said she hopes an independent review will reveal more about where the state is failing prisoners in its custody. Those findings, she said, could point to solutions.

James Rider, like nine other inmates who died in Alaska last year, was not convicted of a crime before he died in jail, said ACLU of Alaska’s Ruth Botstein.

James’ brother, Mike Cox, said his family is joining the lawsuit in hopes of preventing future deaths.

“James did not deserve to die alone in a jail cell. I cannot stomach the fact that others died like James,” he said in a press conference on Thursday. “We don’t want anyone else to go through what James went through. We don’t want anybody else’s family to feel the pain, grief and suffering this family is still going through.”

In another lawsuit, the family of Mark Cook Jr. alleges the state placed him in solitary confinement rather than treating him for extreme back pain, which resulted in his death by suicide in state custody this year. His grandfather, Tom Abel, is working with the ACLU, though the organization is not part of that lawsuit.

“In this country, we have a two-tiered justice system: One for the rich, one for poor,” he said in the news conference. Cook’s bail was set at $7,500 for a disorderly conduct charge.

“Poverty and a lack of access to medical care resulted in a death sentence for my grandson. This is an all too familiar story for Alaskan Native families,” said Abel.

Eight people have died in Department of Corrections custody in 2023 by the ACLU’s count. The state’s count is only six, said Jacqueline Shepherd, a prison investigator for ACLU of Alaska. She said that is because two of the men who died were released from custody or placed on parole while they were unconscious or in the middle of a medical emergency that started while they were in jail.

“We’re now left questioning if the record 18 deaths in 2022 may have been a higher number,” she said.

Court documents in the James Rider case said that the state’s Corrections Department has been investigated twice for policies that could endanger inmates.

Botstein called for greater accountability and transparency from the Department of Corrections “to prevent these tragedies from occurring.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the agency has not yet received the complaint, but the attorney general will file an answer after the lawsuit is evaluated by the state’s Department of Law.


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Claire Stremple
Claire Stremple

Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau, Alaska. She got her start in public radio, first at KHNS in Haines and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. Her focus for the Beacon is education and criminal and social justice.