by Christopher Zoukis
Twelve prisoners at the maximum-security Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska were stripped, searched, restrained, attached to “dog leashes,” paraded in front of female staff members and then left in cells without clothing, mattresses or blankets for 12 hours.
The incident may have never come to light had the Alaska State Ombudsman’s office not become involved. Four years after the incident, on September 19, 2017, the Ombudsman released a report that substantiated the shocking allegations of mistreatment and misconduct by prison staff.
According to the report, prisoners in two housing units broke plumbing equipment and flooded large areas of the facility in August 2013. On August 16, a dozen prisoners were removed from their cells, stripped naked, attached to cuff retainers referred to as “dog leashes” and paraded nude in front of female employees while guards laughed at them. They then spent up to 12 hours with no clothing or bedding in cold, filthy cells.
“The allegations are so shocking that they are almost unbelievable,” said Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.
Several of the prisoners filed grievances over their treatment. One claimed that he did not receive a write-up related to the flooding incident and thus should not have been punished or subjected to retaliation. A lieutenant who was involved in the incident determined the grievance was unsubstantiated; he claimed the prisoners were involved in a group protest, were not left naked but received blue safety smocks and were later given regular prison clothing. The prisoners’ appeals to the assistant superintendent were denied.
The Ombudsman found no evidence to support the lieutenant’s version of events. Rather, the report said the prisoners were held “without clothing, a smock or blanket, or mattress” for an unreasonable amount of time. Indeed, of the four allegations raised in one of the grievances, all were found to be justified – meaning the Ombudsman agreed that the actions taken by prison staff were improper.
The Ombudsman recommended that the Department of Corrections revise its policies regarding strip searches and the use of restraints on nude prisoners. A review of policies in place at other facilities indicated that “best practices dictate that while restrained, prisoners should either be clothed or covered in a manner that maximizes prisoner privacy.” The implementation of a bodycam program for prison employees also was recommended.
“The ombudsman doesn’t have enforcement power, but the governor and the legislature certainly do,” Burkhart stated. “If there’s evidence that a state agency isn’t following the law, then putting the governor and the legislature on notice that it’s happening, so that they can react and hopefully resolve the problem, is important.”
The Ombudsman’s report is a good indication of just how well-insulated actions by prison officials are from the public view. Most people who are incarcerated would not be shocked to hear what happened to the dozen Alaska prisoners in this case, because abusive and retaliatory conduct by guards is all too common. Fortunately, this incident drew the attention of an independent government agency that was willing to conduct a thorough investigation.
In addition to Alaska, there are independent ombudsman offices in Hawaii, Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona.
Sources: www.adn.com, www.ombud.alaska.gov
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login