Alaska corrections officials make public new policy on prisoner deaths

Alaska Department of Corrections officials have unveiled a new policy governing prisoner deaths, weeks after increased scrutiny over the deaths of five inmates within three months.

Prior to the change, the public had no way of knowing what the state’s Department of Corrections did following the death of an inmate in its care since the official policy was classified. Under the new policy, the department will notify next of kin and immediately provide all information about the death that’s not confidential.

“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,” the 11-page policy reads.

Calls by seeking additional comment from DOC officials were not immediately returned Friday.

A state legislative hearing was held last month to address five inmate deaths at state correctional institutions between April and June. The department had been under pressure to divulge more information about the way it handles inmate deaths since Davon Mosley, a 20-year-old mentally ill man, was found dead in his cell in April.

Within the next two months, according to the Alaska Dispatch News, inmate Elihu Gillespie was strangled by his cellmate and Mark Bolus, a 24-year-old suffering from schizophrenia, committed suicide in solitary confinement.

Two additional inmates, Kirsten Simon and Amanda Kernak, died in separate incidents while battling substance abuse. In both cases, their cell mates reported hours of illness without medical attention.

Relatives of those four inmates have said they were unable to learn details of the deaths, and at least two families have indicated they plan to sue the agency.

Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt said last month that he would welcome more transparency in his department — albeit with limits. A first step would be to declassify the prisoner death policy.

“Releasing information was the main problem here,” he told the Alaska Dispatch News. “The number of deaths was not anomalous nor was the cause of death. We’ve all seen this before. But when we have family members where we’re saying ‘no comment’ or ‘we’re not going to talk yet,’ that legitimately creates a lot of concern.”

Among other changes, the new policy, which went into effect Tuesday, creates a "death investigation team" and mandates a report detailing circumstances surrounding the incident. It also ensures that department officials analyze “sufficiency of security staff actions, response related to the death, whether policies and procedures were followed and whether policies and procedures were sufficient” after an inmate dies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.