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Alaskan Prisoner Deaths under Scrutiny

The Alaskan state legislature held a hearing in July 2014 after five Alaskan prisoners died between April and June of that year.

According to Joe Schmidt, director of the Alaska Department of Corrections, the 2010 national prisoner death rate was .217% and the death rate for Alaska was .23%, putting it only slightly above the national average and right in line with states with similar sized-prisoner populations. For instance, in 2010, Alaska had 13 of its 5,597 prisoners die while Hawaii lost 12 of its 5,912 prisoners and Nebraska experienced 12 deaths among its 4,587 prisoners. Over the past fifteen years, the number of Alaskan prisoner deaths per year ranged between four and fourteen, averaging nine per year since 2000.

The five leading causes of death among Alaskan prisoners were heart disease, suicide, illness (other than cancer, liver, respiratory or heart disease), cancer and liver disease. Since 2010, there were four deaths listed as traumas (the designation used for prisoner-on-prisoner homicide) and eight listed as suicide.

"We didn’t find anything anomalous with this series of deaths this year, including the number of deaths," Schmidt said at a public hearing. "We lose between 10 and 12 a year."

But some families of deceased prisoners do not believe enough was done to prevent the deaths of their loved ones. Davon Mosley, 20, was one such prisoner. On April 2, 2014, he died at the Anchorage Jail from internal bleeding due to multiple intestinal ulcers. His family, including his fiancée, Vernesia Gordon, says he went to jail uninjured and his body was returned covered with bruises. Mosely was schizophrenic and bipolar and, according to what he told Gordon during visits at the jail, being denied his medications.

To add to the mystery, Mosley should not even have been in jail. He was arrested on March 16, 2014, on a California parole warrant after a wellness check of his and Gordon’s children conducted by police at the request of Mosley's father, who lives in Bakersfield, California. On March 27, 2014, California declined extradition and Mosley should have been released. Instead, he remained in jail where he died.

On April 10, 2014, Amanda Kernak, 24, died on the floor of her cell. Her cell mate said she had been violently ill in previous days. She had been arrested for driving with a blood-alcohol level in excess of 0.3. She had suffered a recent heart attack and was taking medication for a heart condition before her arrest. She was so ill she could not be moved to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility, yet was left in her cell to die.

Records of Alaskan prisoner deaths have been very expensive to obtain. When the Anchorage Daily News made a state public records request for such records for the years 2000 to 2012, it was told that the cost would exceed $4,000 and it would require in excess of 100 man hours to locate and copy the files for the over 130 prisoner deaths in that time period. The Daily News was told that the files were scattered among medical records, attorney files and incident reports stored in institutions and warehouses around the state.

The public scrutiny led the DOC to release a new policy on the handling of future prisoner deaths. The Department of Public Safety will now be allowed to notify the media of prisoner deaths, the cause of death will be more readily available and the investigations of prisoner deaths will be by law enforcement personnel instead of DOC employees.

Sources: Associated Press,,,

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