‘The people that are incarcerated are human beings too’: ACLU of Alaska questions deaths surrounding DOC prisoners

According to the DOC, 18 people died in custody in 2022. Of those deaths, seven were ruled suicides.
ACLU of Alaska questions deaths surrounding DOC prisoners
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 11:44 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Before Mark Cook Jr. died this past April, he told his grandfather Tom Abel that his back pain had become unbearable.

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

According to the Department of Corrections, Cook, 27, was the third person to die while in DOC custody this year on April 23.

He had been arrested and charged with misdemeanor charges of trespassing and property damage. Abel says Cook was put in solitary confinement, where — at times, he says — Cook would be unable to stand or walk because of a back injury.

“The people that are incarcerated are human beings too,” Abel said.

The ACLU of Alaska announced lawsuits last month on behalf of two men, James Rider and Cook, who died by suicide in Alaska prisons. The organization also wants an independent investigation into the deaths.

According to the DOC, 18 people died in custody in 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 the department.

This year, DOC says seven people have died in custody but the ACLU of Alaska disputes that number.

Megan Edge, Prison Project Director for the ACLU of Alaska, said two men had medical emergencies while incarcerated this year and were taken to hospitals, where they were either paroled or released from custody just before their deaths.

Lewis Jordan was at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Knik and Jimmy Singree, Edge says, was at Wildwood Correctional Complex in Kenai.

She says both men essentially left prisons in comas and were sent to hospitals.

The ACLU says Jordan was in a coma for about a month.

“While he was in a coma, and unable to apply for parole, DOC paroled him,” Edge said. “So they did not count his death, even though his death was the result of a medical emergency they failed to treat while he was in custody.”

Edge said that while Singree was in a coma and with his family waiting to see if they could donate his organs, the department discharged him.

“Both are the results of quality of care — or lack thereof — while they were in custody, but DOC found loopholes to not count their deaths,” Edge said.

The department says it is unable to comment on litigation and has no response to the ACLU allegations.

“Due to the medically vulnerable population in our care and custody, unfortunately medical emergencies within our prison system happen on a regular basis,” a DOC spokesperson wrote in an email. “If an individual is released by the Court or Parole Board or even onto electronic monitoring while in a hospital, we no longer have access to their medical circumstances or records.”

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.

The Department of Law also would not comment.

“We will be answering in the time allowed by the court rules,” the department wrote in an email.