A number of inmate deaths in Alaska prisons over the past few months have prompted state legislators to seek answers. But at a hearing hosted by Senator Hollis French (D – Anchorage) on Tuesday in Anchorage, few questions were resolved.
In a hushed room, Constance Anderson held a photo of her daughter, Kirsten Simon aloft for all to see.
“So I have a lot of questinos, i want to know if the guards are trained, to know if someone is real sick and if it is the policy of the prison to send in a medic, who was five feet away from her cell… there was a medic five feet away from her cell, five feet, from what I understand as what I have been told. Do you know how painful that is? I love my daughter, she was an overcomer. She worked with people with disabilities and had a disability herself.”
Simon, age 33, was found dead in a holding cell in the Anchorage Correctional Center on June 6 of this year.
Anderson relayed Simon’s medical history, her troubled past, her drug addiction.. but she said she is not buying the explanation the Simon may have died from heart failure. Simon’s death was the fourth of an inmate this year, but not the last, and Anderson is not the only family member of an inmate who died in prison. [In a packed hearing room at Anchorage’s temporary Legislative Information Office, people sat on the floor, stood in the hallways, and listened to Vernisia Gordon, fiancee of 20 year old Devon Mosely, who died in an Anchorage jail in April of this year. Gordon read from a prepared statement, tracing the timeline of Mosely’s incarceration and sudden death. He died almost a week after his case had been dismissed.
“Six days after dismissal, still no phone contact from Devon, I’m asked to visit and stll told ‘No.” Four/four, (April 4, 2014) one week after dismissal, still no phone call from Devon. Devon dies at 1:44 pm. I go to the jail at 2:15, and I’m told to come back at 5:30.”
In both cases, officials say no foul play is suspected. But family members who testified said the bodies were covered with bruises. Gordon had the photos to prove that.
Senator French, along with fellow Democrats Senator Berta Gardner and Representatives Andy Josephson and Geran Tarr, heard testimony from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt and from Brad Wilson, who heads the Alaska Corrections Officers Association. Schmidt and Wilson are at odds, specifically over the issue of staffing in Alaska’s prisons. Commissioner Joe Schmidt
“One to five is the ratio. It stacks up well, nationally. If there was a certain number.. we do staffing analysis, we analyze post orders, we look at the work load, we look at the schedule and the hours we have to cover and we make decisions. No one has ever said what that magic number is, how many state employees we have to hire to guarantee nobody’s going to get hurt. There isn’t one. When the prisoners came home from Colorado, our prisoner population went up 27 and a half percent, staffing went up 28% in that same time period. What is significant here is that correctional officers went up 33%.”
Commissioner Schmidt says about a dozen inmates in the state’s prison system die every year.. well below the national average.
But Wilson says DOC’s staffing numbers are off.
“Yes, this is five to one, but four shifts. Three of them are on, but using his math, that means it’s twenty to one. Twenty to one. Three fourths of them aren’t even there. They’re off.”
Wilson says there needs to be an independent review of the deaths.
Perhaps the most telling information to come out of the hearing dealt with the mental health of inmates on intake. DOC’s Laura Brooks,
“We have a new report out from the Mental Health Trust Authority that says about 65 percent of our population are mental health trust beneficiaries. About 22 percent of those are what we would call the severely and persistently mentally ill. So those, that 22 percent, include those people with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.”
Jeff Jesse, director of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, confirmed that 65 percent of inmates are mental health beneficiaries.
Jesse told the panel, that under the Murkowski administration, prison mental health programs were discontinued, but in recent years, the Trust has worked with DOC on improving programs for inmates who are mental health beneficiaries. Wilson says corrections officers do not have the training to deal with mentally ill inmates.
“Unfortunately, the Alaska institutions are the largest mental health providers in the state of Alaska. And their main contact there is corrections officers. We need more training for corrections officers, they are not trained psychologists, but they are the ones that end up having to counsel these individuals, who work with these individuals.”
Perhaps the most notorious prison death in Alaska happened last year, when serial killer Israel Keyes took his own life while incarcerated. The corrections officer on duty at the time, Loren Jacobsen, was fired by the state but ACOA has defended the guard and said the state made him a scapegoat. An arbitor has said the firing was not justified.