Editor’s note: This article includes references to suicide. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available for call, text or chat 24/7.
The family of a Hoonah man who was found Saturday hanging in his cell in Lemon Creek Correctional Center says his death was an avoidable result of a confluence of factors.
Mark Cook Jr., 27, was found unresponsive in his cell at 4:42 p.m. on Saturday by Alaska State Troopers, according to a news release from that law enforcement agency He was then pronounced dead at 2 p.m. the following day. Troopers responded to the scene, and a preliminary investigation revealed that correctional officers located Cook hanging in his cell and immediately began life-saving efforts. Emergency medical services transported Cook to a Juneau area hospital for advanced medical treatment, according to an AST news release.
Troopers are conducting an investigation into the death and according to police there was no evidence of foul play, however family members expressed concerns that institutional and/or systemic problems led to Cook’s death.
The Department of Corrections has drawn criticism in recent months after last year saw a decade-high number of deaths of people who were in custody. Most of the people who died in DOC custody had not been convicted of a crime.
“In my opinion, the combination of solitary confinement, pain, lack of medical attention, and the unfair treatment by the courts and legal justice system, he couldn’t take it anymore and he killed himself,” said Thomas Abel, Cook’s grandfather. “It needs to be publicized so that we can prevent this from happening to anyone else. That’s the least I can do for my grandson.”
Betsy Holley, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, stated the department does not practice true “solitary” confinement, explaining that most cells have two bunks. Holley declined to respond to questions regarding Cook’s specific conditions while at Lemon Creek, stating it’s not the department’s practice to comment on whether an inmate is placed in restrictive housing.
Cook was remanded to the department of corrections on April 3 following a visit to the South East Alaska Regional Health Consortium clinic in Hoonah where Cook was seeking treatment for his pain and became “agitated” with the clinic’s response, according to Abel. Cook was then charged with third-degree assault, which was later dismissed, as well as violating conditions of release and petition to revoke probation (third-degree assault) according to state troopers.
“There was no basis of facts for what they were accusing him of,” Abel said. “Mark went to the clinic for treatment and they ended up arresting him. They kept him in a Hoonah jail when they knew how much pain he was in.”
According to Abel, in addition to having pre-existing back pain due to years of manual labor, roughly six weeks prior to his death, Cook’s girlfriend’s car was stuck in the snow and as Cook was attempting to push the vehicle it rolled back onto him, compressing his spine and crushing a few discs, leaving him in “massive pain,” 24 hours a day.
Cook was transferred from Hoonah to Juneau because the facilities in Hoonah aren’t set up to house inmates on a long term basis due to a lack of staff and training, according to Cook Sr.
Additionally, Abel said after being transferred to Lemon Creek Correctional Center, Cook was kept apart from other inmates so his physical condition could be monitored.
The DOC spokesperson confirmed that Cook was monitored but not under constant observation.
Cook was placed on life-support at Bartlett Regional Hospital in preparation for organ donation, before his body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the exact cause of death, according to his family.
“We’ve had a lot of family come up here to spend time with him, we even had ceremonies for him,” Cook Sr. said. “Yesterday (Wednesday) we did the walk of honor and they took him from the CCU to the operating room to harvest his organs. After that, he’s going to be sent up to Anchorage for an autopsy and the state is paying for that and then the organ registry is paying for him to come back to Juneau and they’re even paying for his cremation.”
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at email@example.com.