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Alaska’s Prison System: Dangerous, Deadly Yet Repeating Past Mistakes

by David M. Reutter


Alaska is a small state with enormous natural resources. The native people, who largely subsist off the land, enrich its culture. The beauty of its landscape draws millions of tourists annually. Yet behind the sheen of natural and cultural richness lies a deadly and degrading prison system. Overcrowding, suicides, disregard for religious and civil rights, as well as over detention make up a sampling of the ills that afflict the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC). The evidence demonstrates that Alaska is just another state enmeshed within the prison industrial complex.

DOC has a fairly unusual mission: It is one of only six American prison systems—Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont being the others—with a “unified corrections system” that houses both pretrial detainees and sentenced prisoners. DOC has a total population of about 5,400, among the smaller of state systems. But Alaska’s incarceration rate of 718 per 100,000 “means it locks up a higher percentage of its population than any democratic country on earth,” according to the nonprofit research and advocacy Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). With 12 prisons and 15 jails, DOC’s proposed 2025 budget of $450.6 million has ballooned by $110.9 million in a decade, an annual growth rate averaging 3.2%

But like many other states, Alaska faces overcrowding resulting from its politicians’ “tough on crime” mentality, now dating back over 35 years. “From 1980 to 1988, Alaska had the largest percentage increase of any state prison population,” noted the Alaska Law Review, and in 1987 and 1988 “ranked fourth among states with regard to the percentage of population incarcerated.” The article found several significant factors leading to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions within DOC lockups, including Alaska’s adoption of presumptive sentencing, increased law enforcement and prosecution, as well as a 1975 ban on plea bargaining for prosecutors issued by then-Attorney General Avrum Gross, one of the rare Democratic state leaders appointed by a Republican governor (in his case, former Gov. Jay Hammond). Changes in public attitudes toward tougher sentencing were also cited. A September 21, 1990, settlement agreement and state court order declared general conditions in DOC facilities unconstitutional and set maximum capacity caps. See: Cleary v. Smith, Alaska Super (3rd Jud. Dist.-Anchorage), Case No. 3AN-81-5274.

Over the next two decades, DOC’s budget increased 60% as the incarcerated population exploded, rising 27% between 2005 and 2014 in Alaska’s unified jail and prison system—“almost three times faster than the state’s resident population,” noted a 2016 Pew Charitable Trusts report. Much of the growth came after Alaska spent $240 million to build a new prison. Yet overcrowding is still a major issue facing DOC.

“Generally, we are trying to respond to overcrowding as it happens,” said DOC Public Information Officer Sarah Gallagher in December 2020. Also trying to drum up pity for the bureaucrats tasked with overseeing the state’s cages, she added that “[w]e don’t know how many offenders we are going to get in and how many are going to be released overnight.”

DOC’s maximum capacity is based on “hard” or permanent beds, so alternatives are required when those beds are filled. “[W]e have what they call boats,” explained Anvil Mountain Correctional Center (AMCC) Superintendent Sandra Martinson. “[T]hey’re plastic units that look like a boat that we put on the floor in housing units where the inmates are sleeping.”

Officials at Lemon Creek Correctional (LCCC) converted the prison hobby shop into a dormitory to meet the need for more bed space there. But overcrowding cascades into multiple deficiencies beyond bed space. Exceeding design capacity results in excessive stress on a lockup’s physical plant. Aging facility sewage, plumbing and electrical systems degrade even faster. The stress increases from overpopulation, creating run-down and dilapidated conditions that are exacerbated by tight budgets. As PLN has reported, overcrowded conditions also cause breakdowns in services required to provide proper supervision and care for the imprisoned. Every extra prisoner that the typical guard must oversee slows his escorts for all of them to healthcare appointments and programming, where still more delays result from the additional prisoner load.

Fudging Death Numbers

A total of 36 people died in Alaska prisons from January 2022 to May 2024. Half of those—18 deaths—fell in 2022, when DOC held 4,800 people. Those numbers are not too dissimilar to New York City’s: Among a total detained population about the same size, it recorded 19 deaths. Yet as noted by Attorney Jacqueline Shepherd of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a federal court “threatened to relieve the City of New York of its responsibility for the prisons because 19 deaths is unacceptable.”

So what about Alaska’s 18 deaths was acceptable? DOC Commissioner Jen Winkleman told state legislators that the deaths were neither accidental not the result of homicides. According to Winkleman, half of the prisoners were receiving end-of-life care.

But Shepard said that only 12 of the 36 deaths since 2022 were among people over 60. Ten were between the ages 40 and 60, 14 were under 40, and six were in their 20s. All of those in their 20s were “either pretrial, charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor offense, or in on a technical violation of the conditions of release,” Shepard said.

The ACLU disputed DOC’s reported number of deaths, too. “I’m always skeptical,” said Communications Director Megan Edge. She pointed to DOC policies—like releasing prisoners who become hospitalized—that serve to lower the number of reported deaths. DOC spokesperson Betty Holley said that 41 imprisoned persons went to a hospital for emergency care in 2022. Of those, five had their charges dropped while receiving hospital care. As PLN has reported, many jurisdictions employ similar tactics to avoid paying costs related to that care.

The ACLU said three of the five later died at a hospital after life support was removed: Angelena McCord died after a seizure event, while the deaths of Lewis Jordan, Jr. and Jimmy Singree followed suicide attempts. As a result, their deaths were not included in DOC reports. “Our policies dictate reporting deaths that occur within our institutional custody,” said Holley. “Once an individual is released from our care, we no longer have access to information about their disposition.”

The number of deaths in 2022 “brought a lot of pressure from the legislature [and] from journalists from the community,” Edge said. But Winkleman painted the deaths as an opportunity. “It’s always been a work in progress,” she told legislators. “We just grow and learn from any experience that we’ve gone through, particularly in this last year.” Information about the deaths is publicly available and the deaths were being investigated, she noted. Though she acknowledged the number of reported deaths was “too many,” Winkleman added that “it’s important to share some of the things that we have found and what we have done.”

“If DOC is investigating itself, I don’t have a lot of confidence in that,” Edge said. “They could [have] been investigating themselves all last year. There was no transparency. No accountability.” DOC’s failure to adopt national suicide standards—or respond to reports finding deaths resulted from that failure—betrays Winkleman’s statements to legislators as political rhetoric meant to appease the press and reassure elected officials that everything is under control. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

A Failure to Act

In 2008, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) issued a policy statement providing that imprisoned persons at risk of suicide should not be placed in seclusion, unless continually monitored. Instead, proper care entails housing in general population or a mental health unit, or a medical infirmary in close proximity to staff and, as much as possible, in suicide-resistant cells.

In 2010, DOC’s Commissioner cooperated with the ACLU and Yale Law School to conduct an in-depth and detailed inspection of state lockups. The subsequent report found DOC suicide prevention policies were in violation of national standards.

A 2015 report compiled at the order of then-Gov. Bill Walker (I) found that DOC had not updated its suicide awareness and prevention policy for 20 years. The report went on to cite studies reporting the negative impacts of solitary confinement. One found that persons with mental illness in segregated housing were significantly more likely to commit fatal acts of self-harm. Finally, the report documented DOC’s use of segregated housing and said it warranted review “to ensure that it is being used sparingly and appropriately.”

DOC says 65% of its population suffers from mental illness. That’s a total of over 3,200 people, yet the agency employs only 75 contractors statewide to serve that population. From 2014 through 2022, at least 29 suicides were committed in DOC custody. Most shockingly, officials continued to use segregation as the principal means of dealing with those expressing or exhibiting suicidal ideation.

One of the most high-profile suicides was that of Isreal Keyes, a federal detainee charged with a teenager’s death and a suspected serial killer. Keyes killed himself in segregation at Anchorage Correctional Complex (ACC) in 2012 during a month-long interrogation by the FBI. The 2014 suicide of Mark Bolus also happened while he was in solitary confinement. A jury later found DOC was negligent in Bolus’ death, and on November 22, 2017, it reportedly awarded his estate $650,000, though the award was capped by state law at $400,000.

Sadly, DOC failed to fully explore the causes of the deaths and possible solutions to save lives. An independent investigative unit charged with examining in-custody deaths, including suicides, was in existence just a short while after its 2016 opening before former Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom eliminated it in 2018, citing cost savings as her reason.

More Suicides

Of course that didn’t stop suicides in state lockups—which are not treatment centers, after all. When Gabby Chipps, 21, was booked into the Homer Jail after she was arrested for the first time in her life on January 19, 2020, guards noted on her booking sheet that she appeared under the influence of heroin. They placed her on “Suicide Precautions,” which included “No Sharps or Razors.” But two days after her transfer to Wildwood Pretrial Facility on January 22, 2020, Chipps began “experiencing a serious mental breakdown, and harming herself,” according to a complaint later filed on her behalf. As a result, she was placed in administrative segregation—solitary confinement. Guards accused her of being uncooperative and disruptive, allegedly refusing to let Chipp’s attorney present her a “time served” offer. On January 30, 2020, Mental Health Clinician Beth Selby noted mental health symptoms and ordered further evaluation, as well as continued confinement in segregated housing. Chipps then attempted suicide on February 8, 2020. Though the attempt failed, it left her unable to walk, see, read, talk, feed herself, or to otherwise care for herself. Her parents have two suits pending against the state filed by Anchorage attorneys Colleen and Daniel Libby, one in federal court for the District of Alaska, which has been stayed pending the outcome of the other filed in state court. See: Chipps v. Alaska, USDC (D. Alaska), Case No. 3:21-cv-00011; and Chipps v. Alaska, Alaska Super. (3rd Jud. Dist.-Anchorage), Case No. 3AN-21-06142CI.

James Rider, 31, was arrested on August 30, 2022, after he cut off an electronic monitor that had been issued when he was placed on probation following a low-level conviction stemming from his drug addiction. When booked into the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility, Rider was bereft after learning he was facing serious felony charges that could lead to years in prison. For admitting to jail staff that he had suicidal thoughts, he was on “suicide precaution watch” for his first day in jail. That meant guards stripped Rider naked and gave him a “turtle suit,” an anti-suicide smock that is a tear-resistant, one-piece padded covering that stretches from the shoulders to about mid-thigh. Despite a complex history of substance misuse and mental health issues, he was placed in solitary confinement, too. Days later, when he was taken off precautions, he hanged himself in his cell.

“He said it was completely humiliating to be stripped down naked and put into a padded room,” recalled Mike Cox, Rider’s older brother. “He told me on the phone he would never say shit to those correctional officers about being suicidal after the way he was treated.”

Rider was moved to a segregation unit on September 5, 2022, and placed in a cell alone. At around 6:28 p.m., guards found him hanging from the top bunk, with a noose fashioned from a braided bed sheet around his neck. A suicide note was found lying next to an open Bible. Rider then died on September 9, 2022, at a local hospital. Attorneys with the state ACLU filed a suit on behalf of his estate and its representatives against DOC and its officials on August 31, 2023; that suit remains pending in state court. See: Cox v. Alaska, Alaska Super. (3rd Jud. Dist.-Anchorage), Case No. 3AN-23-08067CI.

Suicide is a nationwide concern. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), death by suicide has been rising among prisoners for the last two decades. A study published by Florida Atlantic University found self-inflicted deaths to be the leading cause of mortality in jails nationwide, and BJS has found the suicide rate in jails is three times higher than that of the general population.

Preceding Rider’s suicide were four others at different DOC facilities in June 2022 alone, plus a fifth in August 2022. In total, seven of the 18 people to die in DOC custody in 2022 committed suicide, though the tally could be nine with the suicides of Jordan and Singree. The sheer volume of death “should enable the administrators to take a look at their program and see where they went wrong,” said A.E. Daniel, a forensic psychiatrist who has written several books on suicide prevention in carceral environments.

Deadly Detoxing

Those arrested often present serious medical needs. “Elderly, mentally ill . . . in pretrial facilities you typically see more people in the throes of active addiction,” said Edge, of the ACLU. “It’s a vulnerable time, so for those facilities to be operating above the maximum capacity or even at it or close to it, is concerning for us.”

DOC is well aware of the needs such detainees present. “We have a really unhealthy population that comes to us,” Winkleman told the Alaska House Judiciary Committee during testimony in February 2023. “Stats have shown that 50 percent have some kind of chronic medical condition beyond a common cold. Eighty percent, I think we found, haven’t been to a doctor in a while, if ever.”

As PLN has reported, the opiate epidemic sweeping the nation has also caught jails unprepared to deal with detoxing detainees. Jailers and medical staff often decide that a detoxing detainee is malingering, responding to their suffering from opiate or alcohol withdrawal with unconstitutional deliberate indifference, even as the detainee often dies. Such deliberate indifference in DOC was highlighted in a November 2015 report, which convinced then-Gov. Walker to fire the incumbent Commissioner, Joe Schmidt, and hire the report’s author, former Commissioner Dean Williams.

One of those deaths was that of 24-year-old Amanda Kernak, who died at Hiland Mountain Correctional Complex (HMCC) from complications related to alcohol-caused liver damage on April 10, 2014. At the same lockup on June 6, 2014, Kirsten Simon, a 33-year-old mother of two, told guards that “she was very sick, could not stop throwing up, and that she needed to go see a nurse,” according to a suit later filed on her behalf. A guard refused to summon a nurse, instead telling Simon to move her mattress closer to the toilet. About 90 minutes later, surveillance video showed janitorial staff cleaning up urine and vomit from under Simon’s cell door. But no one checked on her for another 90 minutes, when a guard finally noticed that Simon’s skin had turned blue. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.44.]

The January 2016 death of Kellsie Green at Anchorage Correctional Complex (ACC) came just six days after her arrest. A heroin addict, Green languished in solitary confinement as she detoxed. Her requests for medical care went largely ignored, and she weighed just 80 pounds when she died. Her death certificate cited malnutrition, dehydration, renal failure, and heart dysrhythmia as the causes of death. Her father accepted a $400,000 settlement of the suit he filed over her death in April 2019, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Oct. 2019, p.62.]

Beyond failing to care for detoxing detainees, DOC more recently failed Mark Cook, 27. Scheduled for back surgery when he was arrested on misdemeanor charges—for making a scene at a health clinic over inadequate treatment for his agonizing back pain—he couldn’t post $7,500 in bail. When he was then taken to LCCC to receive medical care, Cook was left to commit suicide on April 23, 2023, according to a suit filed on behalf of his estate and its representatives by Juneau attorney Vance Sanders and the state ACLU chapter. See: Abel v. Alaska, Alaska Super. (1st Jud. Dist.-Juneau), Case No. 1JU-23-00772CI.

Infringements on Religion, Tinged with Racism

Finding themselves at rock bottom, people often turn to religion. But DOC’s historical pattern demonstrates several refusals to allow those in its care to practice religion. As PLN has reported, DOC paid $102,000 to prisoners Anas A. Dowl and Earnest A. Jacobson for denial of their religious congregational rights. Their civil rights complaint alleged that while they were prisoners at ACC, officials refused to allow them to congregate for Friday Muslim Jumu’ah prayer or to conduct religious studies. Meanwhile, a variety of non-Islamic religious groups got permission to congregate and conduct studies. The complaint further asserted that Dowl and Jacobson were deprived of proper caloric content during their month-long fast for the Ramadan holiday. [See: PLN, Feb. 2020, p.56.]

William Gary, a pretrial detainee at ACC, alleged that his religious practice rights were violated there when officials refused to allow him to wear his Kufi head covering, even in the housing unit or at attorney visits or when attending doctor appointments. Attorneys with the state ACLU filed a putative class-action challenge on his behalf in November 2023 in federal court for the District of Alaska. See: Gary v. Alaska, USDC (D. Alaska), Case No. 3:23-cv-00262.

DOC earlier agreed in May 2019 to reverse a policy that prohibited Goose Creek Correctional Center (GCCC) prisoner Brian Hall from practicing his Cherokee Indian religious faith by refusing to let him wear items with personal religious significance—a bear claw pendant around his neck, plus one of a half-dozen differently colored bandanas, each one wrapped around his head signifying the direction of his particular spiritual path. A settlement agreement he reached required DOC to make the appropriate policy changes and pay his ACLU attorneys $30,000 in fees and costs. See: Hall v. Alaska, USDC (D. Alaska), Case No. 3:16-cv-00268.

Mark Cook was also Native American, a point not lost on his grandfather and estate representative, Tom Abel. “My grandson got a death sentence for a misdemeanor,” said Abel, who noted that Cook “was in solitary confinement, suffering debilitating back pain when he died.” The grieving grandad also noted that “Alaska Native people make up the largest percentage of incarcerated people in our state.”

“My grandson was one of them,” Abel added. “Something has to change. Something is wrong with this system.”

Studies examining Alaska’s unified carceral population have found support for Abel’s contention that Native Alaskans are overrepresented in DOC. A study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2016 found that whites comprise 67% of the general population but just 46% of the imprisoned population. By contrast, Native Alaskans were 15% of the resident population and 36% of the prison population.

PPI, the Massachusetts based think tank, published a study that examined 2021 jail and prison counts that found the number of imprisoned Native Alaskans had grown to 1,855. The number doesn’t appear disproportionate to the 1,895 whites in custody until you see that Alaska Natives comprised 40% of the prison population but only 14% of the state’s overall population.

“That suggests not just something out of proportion, but also deeply unjust about the criminal justice system,” said Wanda Bertram, a PPI spokesperson. “I think that what it says is Alaska’s criminal justice system is racist. It’s just that simple.”

University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center researcher Brad Myrstol said the matter is more complicated than the numbers represent. “It’s one thing to talk about disparities and try to understand how they’re produced,” he said. “It’s quite another thing to talk about discrimination, which implies a systematic intent.” Myrstol cautioned pause before labeling the system racist. “What I will say is we see disparities throughout the criminal justice system in Alaska and elsewhere,” he said, calling the reasons for those disparities “complex.”

One of the disparities Myrstol noted reflected the poverty of Native Alaskans compared to white detainees, who are more likely to post bail or hire private counsel to help obtain supervised release. Native Alaskans and other minorities less often have recourse to those resources, keeping them incarcerated while awaiting disposition of their criminal case. As PLN has reported, those who remain incarcerated pretrial are more likely to enter plea bargains and more likely to face incarceration and longer sentences as a sanction.

Attorney Access Imperiled

Civil liberties are also threatened at HMCC, the ACLU’s Edge said, by guards who read prisoners’ privileged legal mail, violating a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. As PLN reported, the Court said then that such mail can be opened only in the prisoner’s presence and only to look for contraband; it cannot be read by a guard without violating a prisoner’s Sixth Amendment right to access to counsel. [See: PLN, Apr. 2015, p.55.]

But at HMCC, prisoners told the ACLU that “they did not feel comfortable” writing to the organization’s attorneys because guards were “scanning and reading every legal document that’s going through [the mailroom].” In a letter sent to Winkleman and HMCC Superintendent Brandon Jones on April 22, 2024, ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Ruth Botstein said that staff attorneys visiting the lockup were instructed to give any legal correspondence for a prisoner to prison officials—who would then read it before deciding whether to pass it along.

“This new policy,” she reminded them, “is an explicit violation of constitutional rights.”

Fiscally Driven Reform

In 2016, Alaska legislators and then-Gov. Walker acted to reduce overcrowding in the unified DOC system. Fiscal realities forced their hand. Over the previous two decades, DOC’s budget had increased 60%. Facing a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall and a projected 27% population increase by 2024—an additional 1,416 detainees, with an estimated cost of $169 million annually—legislators united to enact criminal justice reform.

In the face of such overcrowding, DOC seemingly has motivation to move prisoners out of its system as quickly as possible. But a lawsuit filed by pretrial detainee Barbara Pete alleged the opposite is true. Her putative class-action complaint, filed in state court on October 6, 2023, accused DOC of holding people after arrest without charges beyond 48 hours, which the Supreme Court of the U.S. determined was the maximum period to make a probable cause determination when a warrantless arrest occurs in Cty. of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991). Pete, arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, waited over two days in AMCC. Her attorney with Northern Justice Project, Nick Feronti, noted that the lockup was formally warned about the problem by a state court judge in 2020 but said he “would not be surprised if other people came forward.” See: Pete v. Alaska, Alaska Super. (2nd Jud. Dist.-Nome), Case No. 2NO-23-00245CI.

One driver of the detained population increase was an 81% uptick between 2005 and 2014 in the number of people arrested and awaiting court hearings. In 2015, 20% of those imprisoned were held on technical violations of probation or parole. The increase was also due to longer prison sentences, even though “[t]hree-quarters of newly sentenced prisoners were convicted of nonviolent offenses,” as the Pew Charitable Trusts report noted. Absent change, Alaska would need to build another prison or ship prisoners out of state to ease overcrowding.

Legislators enacted policies with Senate Bill 91 that aimed to reduce the prison population by as much as 25%. Passed into law in July 2016, the reforms eliminated secured bond for certain defendants, reduced felony sentencing ranges, reclassified drug offenses as misdemeanors, and adopted three-, five-, and 10-day limitations on revocations to prison for technical violations of probation and parole.

Reversing Course

But criminal justice reform in Alaska was short lived. With new legislators and a new governor, law-and-order once again became the ruling mantra. “We want to make Alaska one of the safest states in the country,” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) on April 28, 2019, when he signed House Bill 49 (HB 49), more popularly known as the ‘repeal mandate bill’ for rolling back 90-95% of SB 91 reforms. “This is a huge start.”

“Hallelujah,” sang state Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer). She and other critics blamed SB 91 for a spike in property crimes. PPI found that DOC’s population saw a decrease following its passage. Were those prisoners released to commit more crimes? It seemed so, but a September 2021 report from the state Department of Public Safety noted that a downtrend in crime actually began in 2018, decreasing to its lowest level since 1975. Nevertheless, property crimes decreased by 22.9% in 2020, reaching their lowest level since 1974. Whether the decrease was due to HB 49 or part of a cyclical trend that accompanies drug epidemics has not yet been explored by academia, but crime rates decreased nationwide after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October 2020, DOC announced that it expected its population to increase by 700—about 14%—by the end of that fiscal year. “I think the increase in our population is really due to House Bill 49 working, and we knew that we would have more criminals off the streets and more in our facilities and that’s exactly what we’re seeing,” said DOC spokesperson Gallagher.

But DOC also said that HB 49 pushed its population to 97% of capacity. Seeking solutions, it floated the idea of sending prisoners out-of-state. Legislators rejected that suggestion outright, noting that Alaska previously went down that road with disastrous results before it built GCCC to keep all its population in-state. They said that prisoners sent “Outside” in the 2000s ended up attending a “criminal college.”

“They’ve come back hardened criminals,” cried Sen. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks). Data showed that most prisoners who went to outside prisons committed new crimes when they returned and were released. The transfers were also blamed for introducing the “1488” white supremacist gang into state prisons; one member, who’d changed his name to Filthy Furher, was convicted in a brutal 2017 murder, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, July 2022, p.63.]

It is no coincidence that as DOC has become more stressed from overcrowding, the number of deaths in its unified system has reached a record. As PLN has reported for over three decades, that is the usual result when tight budgets and crowded prisons meet. But who is served by reversal of criminal justice reform and imprisoning the poorest of the poor? That is a question the public should ask politicians, rather than simply accepting their Hallelujahs.


Additional sources: Alaska Beacon, Alaska News Source, Alaska Public Media, Anchorage Daily News, Daily News Miner, Frontiersman, Pew Trusts, Must Read Alaska, Juneau Empire, KNBA, KTOO

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