Alaska ACLU claims Department of Corrections undercounting inmate deaths
At a recent fundraiser in Anchorage, more than a hundred people packed the room to hear about the ACLU’s Alaska Prison Project and its legal battles with the Department of Corrections (DOC), which the ACLU has sued over the death of an inmate last year.
The audience also heard claims from the ACLU that the DOC fails to provide adequate medical care and is undercounting inmate deaths. The project also takes the department to task for the high rate of Alaska Natives incarcerated in state prisons.
Tom Abel, a Haida from Southeast Alaska, was the keynote speaker. He says two of his grandchildren have been in the prison system.
“The Natives in prison did not get there by accident,” Abel said. “We get arrested in disproportionate numbers. Racism used to flourish in the not too distant past, and it still exists.”
Abel’s grandson, Mark Christopher Cook Jr., was among the names read aloud on stage in remembrance of inmates who died in 2022 and 2023.
Cook’s family has sued the DOC over his death at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau this past April.
Abel says his grandson struggled with mental health problems and suffered from extreme back pain, which Abel believes the department failed to treat, which ultimately led his grandson to take his life.
“This is genocide in its most heinous form,” Abel said.
Out of a record 18 inmate deaths last year, almost half were Alaska Native. DOC hasn’t released information on the racial make-up of 2023’s numbers but Abel wants an independent investigation into all prison deaths, because he doesn’t want any other family to go through what his has experienced.
The Alaska ACLU joined a separate wrongful death lawsuit against DOC, filed in August by the family of James Rider over his suicide last year. Meghan Barker, an Alaska ACLU spokesperson, says Rider’s death was very similar to how Abel’s grandson died.
Barker says Rider suffered from a mental health crisis and told correctional officers he needed treatment. Had mental health care been provided, Barker said, it might have saved his life.
“His death stemmed from a medical emergency that was not treated, and it led to him taking his own life. From that we know, it was a preventable death,” Barker said.
The ACLU read the names of two other inmates who died this year – Jimmie Singree and Lewis Jordan, Jr – who were not among the inmate deaths the Department of Corrections reported this year.
Barker says Singree and Jordan did not die while in prison but after they were hospitalized.
“They're trying to skirt responsibility and trying to not have to be accountable for the practices and the conditions that are leading to outrageous numbers of Alaskans dying in their custody,” Barker said.
Singree was 49. And Jordan, 53. Both died in April, just days apart. The ACLU says Singree was transported to the hospital brain dead and kept alive in hopes of donating his organs. Jordan was in a coma.
The ACLU says the families of the two men say DOC released the men from custody as they lay dying.
When asked for comment, the Department of Corrections would neither confirm nor deny the inmate deaths the ALCU says went unreported.
In a statement, a DOC spokesperson says the department only reports those deaths that are within its “institutional” custody — and when the state court system releases inmates, it is no longer DOC’s responsibility to track them, nor does it have access to their information once they are out of DOC’s custody.
Angelina McCord’s name was also read at the ALCU ceremony. The ACLU says she was the third inmate to die this year, but DOC has yet to acknowledge her death. McCord died in a hospital last month at the age of 29, after she had been jailed at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. The department has only reported eight inmate deaths for 2023, but the ACLU says McCord was the 11th to die.
“I think it’s wrong,” said McCord’s mother, Angel Standifer, who says DOC should report all inmate deaths, whether they occur in prison or at a hospital.
Standifer wants a complete accounting of the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death, so she and her family can move on.
“It’s really painful. Sometimes I can’t get up,” she said in tears. “Some days I don’t want to get up.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances surrounding James Rider's death.
Standifer says her daughter, who was nicknamed Lena, had her struggles but seemed to be turning around. She describes her daughter as an athletic young woman who loved to play basketball and volleyball. She also enjoyed coaching Native Youth Olympics in her home village, Tyonek, where she had worked as a Head Start teacher and helped her dad with commercial fishing.
Standifer said her father would often refer to his daughter as “his first son.”
“She would always go out moose hunting and help us butcher the moose,” Standifer said. “She always helped her family, no matter what.”
Barker says McCord had only been in custody for a few days for a shoplifting charge.
“Her family reported that she had a seizure. She was transported by DOC to the hospital and ended up in a coma. While she was in that coma, the state cleared her charge and released her, and her family took her off life support October 10.” Barker said.
The ACLU says if had it not heard from Angelena McCord’s family, it would not have known about her death.
Megan Edge, who oversees the ACLU’s Alaska Prison Project, says the ALCU concedes that inmates have not led perfect lives, but its failure to report their deaths shows complete disregard for human life.
“It’s just a refusal to acknowledge that the people who are dying are people,” said Edge, who questions how many other deaths have gone unreported. She says the problem is likely far worse than DOC is willing to admit.
As for the ACLU’s allegations, DOC said in its statement that it appreciates the public’s concern but added, “DOC takes all matters regarding the welfare of those in our care seriously and cannot comment on allegations from outside sources.”
The department said last year’s record high death rate was caused, in part, by an aging prison population and the increasingly poor health of those who enter the system, due to poverty and addiction. It also has said health privacy laws prevent it from releasing details about these deaths.