This photo shows Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

This photo shows Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Family of man who died by suicide in Juneau prison sues state for wrongful death, negligence

“It may be the last thing I do, but I intend to do every bit that I can.”

The family of a Hoonah man found hanging in his cell at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in April has filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Corrections, arguing it breached its duty to provide adequate care to the man, leading to his death.

The lawsuit was filed on Monday in Juneau Civil Superior Court by the grandfather of the man, Mark Christopher Cook, who was 27 years old at the time of his death.

His grandfather, Thomas Abel, said his grandson died by suicide after he spent weeks at the prison while suffering “excruciating and debilitating” back pain without proper care. He said the death could have been prevented.

“I feel sorrow, I feel anger,” Abel said Thursday in an interview. “Most of all, I am now going to be dedicating myself and I intend to do everything I can to do something about this.”

The lawsuit names the Alaska Department of Corrections as the defendant. Cook’s death was the third to occur in the department’s custody in 2023. In 2022, 18 inmates died under the department’s control in 2022, seven by suicide, according to department statistics.

Abel is supported by ​​the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, who on Thursday announced it is seeking for the state court system to order an independent investigation into the corrections department following the rising number of deaths reported in the last year.

Cook was incarcerated at LCCC as a pretrial detainee beginning in early April after being detained by the Hoonah Police Department. He was originally charged with disorderly conduct and third-degree assault.

Prior to his transportation to LCCC, the lawsuit states that Alaska State Troopers refused to transfer Cook from Hoonah to Juneau, citing Cook’s back pain as requiring medication before transporting. However, according to the lawsuit, LCCC medical staff refused to address concerns about Cook’s condition and needs for medication, and prison Superintendent Robert Cordle refused to move Cook to a medical facility.

“Once admitted to LCCC, the Department of Corrections breached its duty of care to Mark Cook Jr. by not transporting him to Bartlett Regional Hospital so he could obtain proper medical care to alleviate the horrific pain he then was experiencing,” the lawsuit states.

During his time at the prison, which spanned about three weeks, the lawsuit states Cook continued to endure excruciating back pain without relief. At an unknown date, the lawsuit states that Cook was examined by a doctor, who “advised that Mr. Cook needed back surgery but neither LCCC nor DOC would provide surgery since Mr. Cook was a pre-trial detainee, and had not been sentenced.”

According to the lawsuit, little to no effort was made by LCCC to seek or obtain care for Cook and he continued to experience his pain.

Because of his medical condition, Cook was placed in “administrative segregation” with a camera able to monitor the cell 24/7, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit names three officers who were allegedly responsible for observing his cell via the camera on the day of his death.

On that afternoon it wasn’t until one of the officers discovered Cook’s camera was covered by an object and upon checking his cell they discovered him hanging by a bedsheet from a grate at the back.

“LCCC personnel provided inadequate care to Mark Cook Jr. by inadequately monitoring his cell and failing to observe that his condition was deteriorating and required immediate intervention,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states that though the sheet was cut down shortly after discovery, Cook was unconscious and, after being transported to BRH, he was pronounced dead in the early hours of the following day.

“Had Mr. Cook been admitted to Bartlett Regional Hospital for proper treatment of his excruciating, and worsening, back pain, his suicide at LCCC would not have occurred,” the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff is seeking financial settlements and damages for the physical and emotional pain Cook suffered while admitted at LCCC, and damages on behalf of members of Cook’s family.

Abel said he is determined to seek justice for his grandson and to advocate for wider reform in Alaska.

“I think that we need to approach this from a wider perspective and just dig deeper into corrections — it needs to be some societal changes,” he said. “How I feel is I feel determined, I’m gonna dedicate myself to this. I’m 75 years old. And it may be the last thing I do, but I intend to do every bit that I can.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651) 528-1807.

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