‘I love you’: A grandson dies by suicide in DOC custody

‘I love you’: A grandson dies by suicide in DOC custody
Published: May. 17, 2023 at 4:13 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When his grandfather tells the story of Mark Cook, the first thing he’ll mention is how Cook would always say “I love you.”

He’d do it all the time, Tom Abel says. He’d come in and raid the fridge for a soda and ice cream and tell his grandfather he loved him.

Cook would come home at night and say “I love you” before bed.

“What we miss about him is his presence,” Abel said. “His presence filled our households. Every chance he got, he’d be telling us ‘Grandpa, I love you, Grandma, I love you.’”

Abel says his grandson killed himself inside a cell at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

According to the Department of Corrections, Cook was the third person to die while in custody this year.

Abel says his grandson had gone to a local clinic for treatment on his back — but the treatment didn’t work. It made the pain even worse, and Cook yelled and threatened to sue people. The pain was so intense Cook couldn’t walk and was screaming out in pain.

The next day he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor charges of trespassing and property damage. Abel says Cook was put in solitary confinement because of an issue with another prisoner.

Abel believes that while Cook was in custody, he didn’t get the proper treatment and the pain persisted. He says at one point even using the bathroom for Cook was unbearable.

Then, one day, Cook hung himself. Abel says he put tape over the room’s security camera and that it was 30 minutes before security guards found him.

“He was calling me every day and telling me what he was going through. He was, he was suffering and pain,” Abel said.

According to the Department of Corrections, 18 people died in custody in the year 2022. Of those deaths, seven were ruled suicides.

That’s an increase over the previous years — only two people died by suicide in 2021 and five in 2020, according to DOC.

The DOC says 65% of the inmate population have a mental illness, and 75 people work as contractors providing mental health services statewide to a total prison population of nearly 4,500 people.

“We are the number one mental health providers of the people of Alaska by default,” DOC’s Chief Mental Health Officer Lisa Guzman said.

A former mental health professional who worked with inmates says the DOC’s care of those experiencing a mental crisis within the system is lacking. Her identity is being protected due to concerns of retaliation against her.

“I’m there to help them with the mental health care part — they’re in jail, that’s taking care of the law part, I had nothing to do with their punishment. So I have every obligation to treat them as a patient. So in that sense, since I wasn’t actually able to treat them adequately, it felt really shameful,” she said.

“I often had patients that were suicidal, telling me that, you know, well, I get seen, you know, once a day for a couple of minutes. And I think that was a lot due to staffing,” she said.

DOC admits there isn’t enough staff.

“We have consistently tried to make improvements on services,” Guzman said. “And I think, that despite not having enough staff, despite still having positions open, we’ve continued to provide the essential services we need.”

Megan Edge, director of the ACLU of Alaska Prison Project, said the DOC lacks the ability to take care of inmates’ mental and physical health.

“I’ve heard a lot of nice things come out of the mouths of DOC executives and legislative budget hearings and confirmation hearings. But what I’m seeing actually happen inside of our prisons and jails is not reflective of those nice words. Those words are hollow,” Edge said.

DOC says it is participating in Project 2025, which is a national movement to decrease suicide in the U.S. by 20% by the year 2025.

“Corrections was one of the kind of target populations that was identified because suicide rates are high in corrections nationwide,” Guzman said. “And so we are actively participating in that, we’ve developed kind of a suicide prevention readiness checklists that we’re going to be trying to go to all the facilities and collect data on how we can make improvements and hopefully contribute to that project and decreasing suicide nationally.”

Guzman goes on to say that many of those incarcerated already have mental health issues that haven’t been addressed.

“We are managing a high volume of mentally ill people who are not getting the care they need,” Guzman said. “So as much as you know, they, they come into our system, and we treat them and then we send — we do as much release planning as we can — and we send them back out into the community. And then at times, they’re not getting that follow-up care. And so it’s kind of a — it can become a cycle.”

Edge says what’s happening now is essentially a bandage for a much larger problem.

“When you start to understand why people go in, let’s take, you know, the suicides last year, they’re all fairly young, many of them had complicated mental health issues. One person was experiencing homelessness. Prison is not a solution for public safety. It’s putting a Band-Aid on the symptom. That’s it,” Edge said.

Abel says his grandson, Mark was looking forward to the birth of his second child, who is due in the fall.

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.