After weeks of increased scrutiny over deaths in its custody, the Alaska Department of Corrections has released a new policy on how it handles prisoner deaths.
According to an 11-page summary of the new policy posted on DOC’s website (PDF), it promises greater transparency than the previous version. The department took weeks to reveal the causes of death for 20-year-old Davon Mosley and 24-year-old Amanda Kernak, saying both died of natural causes. Mosley reportedly had bleeding from more than a dozen intestinal ulcers when he was found dead at the Anchorage Jail April 4, and Kernak died of complications from severe liver disease before being found at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center April 10.
“In the event of a prisoner death, the Department shall notify next of kin, promptly provide the public with information regarding the death which is not confidential under applicable law, and conduct a confidential investigation to determine the cause and circumstances surrounding the death as well as any related deficiencies in policies, procedures or practices,” officials wrote.
The document also calls for full DOC cooperation with investigations into the deaths of any inmates in custody.
“Additionally, in the event of an unexpected prisoner death, the Department shall facilitate any investigation conducted by law enforcement authorities and seek a review of the death by the State Medical Examiner.”
According to the policy, media notification of inmate deaths will be made “immediately after it is determined by (Alaska State Troopers) that the release will not affect their investigation.” Initially only the fact of a death and the facility where it occurred will be released, with more information being released when next of kin are notified and when the state medical examiner’s office releases a formal cause of death.
Another section of the policy lays out the procedure for DOC’s internal investigation of an inmate death, listing information ranging from staff interviews to medical reports which will be included in a 13-part internal report.
“The report shall be prepared as a memorandum to the attention of the Assistant Attorney General who is the lead attorney assigned to represent the Department and shall be marked ‘Confidential -- Attorney-Client Communication,’” officials wrote.
The revision of the policy follows an emotional hearing earlier this month, at which family members of DOC inmates who died in custody publicly criticized the department’s leadership for the handling of their loved ones’ losses. The mother of Kirsten Simon, who died in an Anchorage holding cell June 6, told state lawmakers that her daughter was too sick to move -- but the only person who came to see her was a guard who told her to go to court.
DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt says the new policy is "a result of questions coming in from family members," and is focused on preventing delays in the release of information as the department begins to respond.
"There's many folks who were interested; some folks in the legal field, some folks in the media -- but our primary concern was the families," Schmidt said. "The new policy doesn't include a lot of new pieces; it just codifies a lot of little pieces."
Schmidt says the July 15 legislative hearing was a pivotal point in the department's consideration of the new policy.
"When I left the hearing, I was convinced we had to let the public know more information in the beginning," Schmidt said. "Coming out of the hearing, I knew the policy hard to be public."
While Schmidt says even one death in DOC custody is too many, he and the department believe that this year's five deaths so far are in line with the usual 10 to 12 inmate deaths DOC sees per year.
"The number of deaths is still not anomalous," Schmidt said. "I think what's different this year is that we didn't know what the causes were for several of those."