Alaska’s rising inmate death rate has family members demanding answers
2022 marks the highest number of inmate deaths recorded in the past 20 years
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A total of 17 inmates have died thus far in 2022 while in custody with the Department of Corrections.
Editor’s note: This article contains information that some readers might find disturbing
That’s the highest number of deaths recorded in the past 20 years, according to department records that go back to 2000. Family members of those inmates now question whether the department has been doing enough to properly treat every inmate in their care.
Marcus Gillion is still alive in the memories of his family and friends. His brother, Donald Gillion, remembers the good times he spent with Marcus while growing up.
“He just, you know like, listened to music,” Gillion recalls. “Tupac, you know, cooking and, you know, just having a good time.”
Marcus Gillion, 48, was the 14th inmate to die this year while in the custody of Alaska’s Department of Corrections. Gillion’s family members say he had a known heart condition and was previously diagnosed with schizophrenia. They say his mental health issues never became a problem, as long as he was taking his medications.
“He was a good boy,” said Marcus’ mother Carolyn Gillion.
This past September, Carolyn called police when Marcus began acting violently. She says even though Marcus never touched her, he was still arrested and jailed for assault. She then pleaded with the judge to place him in a mental health facility instead.
“He started acting strange, talking strange, out of his head,” Carolyn said. “So I didn’t know no other way but to try to get him some help through the courts and I was denied.”
After being incarcerated at the Anchorage Correctional Complex for one week, Marcus was dead. The Gillions say they’ve called the Department of Corrections, Alaska State Troopers and the State Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what happened, but were told they would have to wait up to 12 weeks for the autopsy report to be completed.
They now have more questions than answers.
“They didn’t do a good job, they didn’t do a good job,” Carolyn Gillion contends. “Because my son, my child could have been here today if they had did their job.”
“It really do raise eyebrows like you know, something is going on. I’m not blaming the DOC but, you know something is going on,” Donald Gillion said. “They’re not getting the proper attention or something for those people to be dying at a rapid pace like that, you know.”
Two weeks before Gillion’s death, another inmate, 31-year-old James Rider, also died while in DOC custody. His death was ruled a suicide by the State Medical Examiner’s Office. Rider had been arrested a number of times for misdemeanor offenses but, according to Alaska’s court records, had never been charged with a felony. His family says he had substance abuse issues but had recently taken steps to get sober, both for himself and his three young children.
“James was coming back around, and we were really happy to see that,” said Rider’s brother Mike Cox.
Cox says Rider turned himself into troopers after learning a warrant had been issued for his arrest for violating probation on escape and criminal trespass charges. Then, after 10 days of incarceration, Rider committed suicide.
“He was able to fasten some sheets together and hang himself from the top bunk,” Cox said.
His family now wants to know how this happened, since the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report indicates that Rider was placed on a suicide precaution watch, due to statements he made during his intake evaluation at Mat-Su Pretrial.
Rider’s autopsy report states that on Aug. 30, Rider “remained under precaution for one day and was moved to a different cell with two other inmates.”
Five days later, he “was transferred to Cell 8 in the Charlie Dorm where he was the sole individual in the cell.”
Within hours of being transferred to that cell, Rider managed to hang himself with bedsheets, according to the autopsy report.
“He was put into a cell by himself with all the means to commit suicide, and he did,” Cox said. “The neurosurgeon doctor said that he’d gone at least a half an hour with no oxygen to his brain before they started CPR.”
According to the autopsy report, Rider “was observed to be alive and well approximately 20 minutes prior to being found during a scheduled cell check.”
Cox, who feels DOC workers failed to keep a close eye on his brother, said “it says that they weren’t coming around every 20 minutes.”
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Betsy Holley says the department did everything by the book, including visually inspecting inmates.
“Visual checks are done every half hour,” Holley wrote in an email. “(And) may be more frequent for inmates on suicide protocol.”
“Nothing adds up,” Cox said. “I think it was something about the treatment that he was getting, or the lack of treatment.”
Cox said he’s not convinced the department is properly treating inmates with mental health issues.
“DOC is failing the people that they are required by law to keep safe and protect,” said Megan Edge, Communications Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, and Director of the Alaska Prison Project.
Edge is investigating a number of issues involving DOC, including inmate deaths. She says inmates and corrections workers speak to her off the record about what goes on behind bars.
“No one truly has a good idea of what is happening in our prison system, except the people that are living there every day, who are mostly voiceless,” Edge said. “When they do speak up, they face very real threats of retaliation.”
Family members of both Rider and Gillion now question whether their loved ones would still be alive today if they received the help they needed while in jail.
“He said that there wasn’t any, there wasn’t anybody to help them there,” Cox recalled a conversation he had with his brother the day before his suicide. “There’s no doctors or anything that he could do to start taking the steps of seeking mental health until he gets out of jail.”
Gillion’s family is still waiting for the results of his autopsy. Holley says the department is limited as to the information they can release about inmates, but did provide a written statement saying the department has psychiatrists and medical professionals on staff who treat inmates with a variety of issues. She said each death is reviewed, and that the department is constantly looking for ways to ensure the safety and well-being of every inmate in their custody.
Alaska News Source made repeated requests over a period of several weeks for an on-camera interview with the acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections, but that interview was never granted.
Readers with any tips or information related to this story can email the Investigative Team at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at 833-907-8477 (TIPS).
If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.
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