Report: Big problems in DOC

Commissioner Ron Taylor.

Commissioner Ron Taylor.

A four-month investigation has found significant problems within the Alaska Department of Corrections, and Gov. Bill Walker has accepted the resignation of the commissioner of corrections, he said Monday. (View the review in PDF format here)

“I found it very troubling,” Walker said Monday in a press conference unveiling the report. “The system is broken in many ways and needs new leadership.”

Walker appointed Ronald Taylor to serve as the department’s commissioner in January.

Among the problems identified by the report:

• Correctional officers repeatedly violated inmates’ legal due process rights;

• Drunken and intoxicated people were held in protective custody for illegal lengths of time;

• Investigations of inmate deaths were not conducted properly;

• Several juveniles have been kept in solitary confinement for more than a year;

• Newly hired corrections officers sometimes go months without attending the training academy;

• Medical and mental health employees do not report to prison superintendents;

• Many prison policies have not been updated since the 1980s;

• Correctional officers were not adequately searched for contraband;

• Misconduct by corrections officers and management was not always punished.

“Right now, we have kind of a broken system,” said Dean Williams, one of two special investigators appointed by Walker in August.

By phone, state ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins said the number of complaints against the Department of Corrections has been unprecedented in her 25 years of experience. “I can’t recall that many reports, investigations in the over 25 years I’ve been in the office,” she said. “These all came about at the same time … and that’s just an unusual occurrence to have that many formal investigations going on against one agency at the same time.”

While Lord-Jenkins was not a member of the special investigation, her office — which handles complaints from members of the public (including inmates) — features prominently in the final report.

The other special investigator was former FBI agent Joe Hanlon, who on Monday called the report “very comprehensive.”

The investigation was sparked by a series of inmate deaths within Alaska prisons and had intended to review 25 recent deaths. During the four-month inquiry, two more deaths were recorded, including one in Juneau. The results of inmate death investigations have generally been kept confidential by the Department of Corrections, and the report is the first comprehensive look the public has been allowed.

In January, an Alaska Native man named Larry Kobuk died under circumstances similar to those suffered by Eric Garner, a black New York City resident put in a chokehold. According to the recently released report, Kobuk died while being restrained face-down by correctional officers.

As two correctional officers were on Kobuk’s back to restrain him, two Anchorage Police Department officers observed. “The police officer reported that he heard Mr. Kobuk yell several times that he couldn’t breathe,” the report states. “Three of the correctional officers involved said Mr. Kobuk told them he couldn’t breathe.”

Kobuk subsequently fell unconscious and died.

In August, a Juneau man named Joseph Murphy died at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He was intoxicated and admitted to jail under a statute that allows corrections officers to detain people for their own protection, the report states.

Under that statute, a person can be held for a maximum of 12 hours or when the person is no longer incapacitated, whichever comes first.

On the morning of Aug. 14, Murphy woke up in Lemon Creek and started yelling, asking for his release and complaining of chest pain. He started banging his cell door, the report stated. After about five to 10 minutes of banging, the report states, a corrections officer started yelling at Murphy, who yelled back. A second corrections officer, referred to as “Staff 4,” “reports hearing the inmate saying he needed medical care, and heard Staff 3 say, ‘I don’t care, you could die right now and I don’t care.’”

Approximately 20 minutes later, Murphy collapsed on the floor of his cell. He died less than an hour later.

“It’s a setup in some ways,” Williams said, referring to the state’s practice of protective custody for those who are arrested while intoxicated.

They have committed no crime, he said, but are going into jail.

The report completed by Williams and Hanlon found that the Department of Corrections and Alaska State Troopers mishandled the investigation into Murphy’s death.

“Staff 4, a critical witness, was not interviewed by the Alaska State Troopers and is not mentioned in the Special Incident Report written by Corrections,” the report states.

“I think the department has a hard time investigating itself,” Williams said.

In their report, Williams and Hanlon recommend the creation of an independent internal investigation team outside the Department of Corrections. Furthermore, they also recommend the state “eliminate the practice of admitting intoxicated individuals in prison for protective custody.”

In other instances of failure, the report identified cases from the ombudsman’s office that found inmates had been denied legal due process. “We’ve had minor issues of due process, but nothing as significant as this,” she said. “We have hundreds of complaints against the Department of Corrections every year, but these were such severe cases. … Generally, agencies try to fix these issues.”

In another significant change, the report recommends the department reduce its use of solitary confinement, currently used as a way to punish inmates for misbehavior. In one case, investigators found that four juveniles have been in solitary confinement for almost a full year since escaping from a juvenile facility and being charged with adult crimes.

That type of treatment hurts their mental health, and the investigators concluded that solitary confinement may have been a factor in the suicides of some inmates.

“Reducing solitary confinement is compatible with Alaska’s goal of reducing recidivism,” the report states. “Inmates released directly from solitary confinement … are particularly at risk of poor adjustment.”

Walker has named Walt Monegan to serve as interim director of the Department of Corrections to replace Taylor.

Lt. Kris Sell, a Juneau Police Department officer and a director of the Alaska Peace Officers Association, said she had found Taylor to be aggressive in his pursuit of inmates’ rights.

“We will begin a search, which will perhaps be a nationwide search,” for a permanent replacement, Walker said.

Monegan had served as commissioner of public safety under Gov. Sarah Palin until his July 2008 dismissal amid controversy. A subsequent report found Monegan’s dismissal was likely driven at least partially by his refusal to fire a trooper who was Palin’s ex-brother-in-law.

In a statement, the Alaska Correctional Officers Association said it applauds Monegan’s appointment. “Correctional officers have said for a decade that there are serious problems within corrections, including staffing and training, but officers have been ignored,” the statement says.

The ACOA, which represents correctional officers as its bargaining agency, said it is “still reviewing the report and look(s) forward to working with the new DOC management on the issues within the department.”

Walker said the only change he will oversee is “the change at the top,” and implementing the recommendations of the report will be the job of Monegan and his presumed replacement.

“It’s clear that as a result of this, the system is broken and we’re going to fix this,” Walker said.

 

Get more

To read the complete report, see this story online at www.juneauempire.com.

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