Employees of the Alaska Department of Corrections used excessive force against inmates during a pepper spray incident in 2017, the state ombudsman found in a report released on Monday.
Ombudsman Kate Burkhart investigated five allegations based on an inmate’s complaints and concluded all five were justified based on the evidence.
The complaints against the Department of Corrections stemmed from a 2017 incident in which three inmates in the back of a transfer van were, per the complainant, sprayed with pepper spray, left to sit in the van for 10-15 minutes, and not given leave to shower or decontaminate his clothes; the complainant said he was wearing the same clothes when he contacted the ombudsman. According to the report, when the complainant attempted to file a grievance against the Department of Corrections, the DOC’s responses were “evasive or non-responsive.”
“DOC takes this report seriously, and this Administration is committed to ensuring this type of incident does not happen again,” said DOC spokesperson Betsy Holley in an email.
The ombudsman investigated five separate allegations based on the complaint, according to the report.
— DOC staff employed excessive force by OC spraying three inmates in a van and leaving them there for a period of time.
— DOC staff did not allow the inmates to decontaminate after being sprayed.
— DOC staff did not comply with their own use of force policy.
— The investigation failed to hold those responsible accountable.
— By keeping the results confidential, they failed to demonstrate their avowed goal of transparency.
The DOC partially objected to the finding for the third allegation, regarding the use of force policy, but did not contest the other findings, according to the report.
The report on the incident was released under the ombudsman’s authority, with DOC failing to complete its update on its use of force policy in that time. While the ombudsman’s office usually waits until a department has implemented corrections before releasing a report, Burkhart said, in this case, the policy was still being updated nearly half a decade after the incident.
A separate recommendation, made by the ombudsman’s office in 2017 that DOC officers use body cameras and wire transport vehicles for audio and video recording, is still being assessed and evaluated, Holley said.
All issues pertaining to whether the officers involved were disciplined and DOC’s use of force policy are confidential under personnel policy and facility security policy respectively, Holley said.
“DOC policies related to facility security, including use of force, are confidential, however DOC is committed to ensuring the policy is updated and the appropriate training is taking place,” Holley said. “Even though this incident occurred under a different DOC Commissioner and Administration, DOC will continue to review the report and make necessary changes to policy and training to ensure an incident like this does not happen again.”
Of the 11 recommendations made by the ombudsman’s office following the investigation in 2018, the DOC responded to one of them, saying they were working on updating the use of force policy. The DOC did not respond to the other 10 recommendations, meaning they were implicity accepted, according to the report.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.