Hearing addresses string of Alaska inmate deaths

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A state legislative hearing to address a recent string of Alaska inmate deaths prompted a call for legislation to establish a third-party independent review of such deaths.

Top officials with the state Department of Corrections attended the hearing on Tuesday to answer for the deaths of five young inmates at state correctional institutions between April and June, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Spectators included mental health advocates, families of dead inmates and correctional officers.

The packed hearing was convened by state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Republican, in response to calls from constituents.

Among those attending the hearing was Vernesia Gordon, the fiancee of inmate Davon Mosley, who died at the Anchorage jail on April 4. Gordon said that before Mosley’s death, she was repeatedly told by jail staff that she couldn’t see or visit him. She questioned why Mosley wasn’t released after charges against him had been dismissed.

State Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat who attended the meeting, said he will research the idea for a third-party independent review and consider introducing a bill for the next legislative session.

DOC officials say the recent deaths aren’t out of the ordinary. According to officials, 10 to 12 people die in Alaska jails each year. DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt described the medical response to the deaths as good.

“There were a few technical issues we did encounter but nothing that would have cost one of these deaths,” said Schmidt, who did not explain what the technical issues were.

Schmidt said that as a result, however, the department has added a unit for women at the Anchorage jail to improve access to round-the-clock medical care.

In April, 24-year-old Amanda Kernak died at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, Alaska’s only prison for women. Schmidt said Hiland has medical staff on call only 18 hours a day, although a nurse was working when Kernak died.

Schmidt acknowledged that information for families of inmates after an unexpected and sudden death is often scarce.

Brad Wilson, head of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, said officers acted heroically during the recent deaths. He said that included providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“We need to shed light on this,” he said. “I think we need to look at an independent third-party to come in and look at these deaths it should never be business as usual for people to die.”

Schmidt said the department is drafting an updated policy and procedures related to inmate deaths. He said the policy would be made available to the public.

Since 2000, a total of 148 people have died in the care of DOC’s care, according to department statistics. Of those, about 61 percent died of trauma, suicide or an “acute medical condition.”

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