The room where the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee holds its meeting sits empty on Tuesday. A presentation about an increase in the number of inmate deaths in state custody was abruptly canceled here. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

The room where the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee holds its meeting sits empty on Tuesday. A presentation about an increase in the number of inmate deaths in state custody was abruptly canceled here. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Republican lawmakers shut down legislative hearing about deaths in Alaska prisons

Former commissioner: “All this will do, is it will continue to inflame passions of advocacy groups.”

A presentation about a jump in the number of inmate deaths in state custody that included proposals for solutions was abruptly canceled in an Alaska legislative committee on Tuesday morning.

In a vote that fell along party lines, Republican members of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee voted to cancel the talk prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and former Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams.

The objection to the discussion hinged on a rule that legislative bodies should not discuss matters under adjudication; the state is the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The refusal comes after a spike in the number of Alaskans that have died in the state’s carceral system. Last year, a record of 18 people died in custody. This year the ACLU of Alaska alleges 13 have died, though the state has accounted for only 10 of them.

Megan Edge, director of ACLU Alaska’s Prison Project, which monitors the state’s criminal legal system, said she was disappointed that lawmakers turned down an opportunity to start solving the problem of increased inmate deaths in the state.

“We have 5,000 Alaskans sitting in our jails and the fact that they’re not willing to hear this says a lot about how little they care about people in prison,” she said. “The people that are dying are predominantly pretrial, very young and Alaska Native.”

Williams was slated to weigh in on how to address the recent uptick in inmate deaths — an issue he faced as head of the Corrections Department in 2016.

“If the rule was you could never talk about anything in litigation or address anything in litigation you would never get to talk about anything in this building,” he said.

Williams said what he came to talk about is distinct from the lawsuit.

“They’re conflating legal issues,” he said. “And what’s disappointing is it seems to be an attempt to not actually discuss the problems.”

Deaths in custody

Williams flew to Juneau from Anchorage to share his insights at the meeting. While a special assistant to former Gov. Bill Walker, he conducted an investigation into the state’s Corrections Department with a retired FBI agent. The report called for an external review of inmate deaths, much like the one the ACLU currently seeks. He said the recent deaths feel similar to what he dealt with back then.

“There was an opportunity to address what has gone wrong again in the last several years and why we have the highest number of deaths in the department’s history,” he said.

“There’s deaths that are occurring that are totally inappropriate, that I know Commissioner (Jen) Winkelman would never agree with and would not would not want herself.”

One of his major recommendations is that the state reinstall an independent internal affairs unit in the Corrections Department, like one in place when he was commissioner. It was dismantled by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, he said. Alaska is one of only a few states without one.

“You can’t expect the department to investigate itself when bad things happen,” he said. “Alaska is an outlier in terms of having an internal affairs unit. There is no internal affairs unit right now in Alaska. That is not the way other correctional systems operate in our country.”

Williams worked with Winkelman previously and said he supported her efforts; his goal in speaking at the Capitol was to talk about ways the state could improve and that canceling the hearing deprived the department of recommendations on how to address its challenges.

“All this will do is, it will continue to inflame passions of advocacy groups, it will continue to inflame passions of the families of loved ones who are dying and not understanding what’s happening,” he said.

Surprise objection

The objection of committee Co-chair Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, came as a surprise to the committee’s Chair, Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, who had scheduled the presentation.

When McCabe objected to the presentation, he cited a rule from Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, which states, “Any matter awaiting adjudication in a court should not be debated or discussed in a legislative body.”

The adjudication in question was a lawsuit filed last year. In it, the ACLU of Alaska joined the family of James Rider, one of the inmates who died last year, in a suit seeking damages for his alleged wrongful death and an independent review of the Corrections Department’s practices.

After consulting with Megan Wallace, the Legislature’s chief attorney, committee members voted 4 to 3 not to hear the presentation. Wallace did not advise lawmakers which path to choose, but answered questions about the law and legal liability.

In a memo to McCabe’s office on March 25, she wrote that “there may be grounds for objection to discussing the 2015 Department of Corrections report or recommendations for review of Department of Corrections practices on the grounds that the matters are currently awaiting adjudication.”

Republican members McCabe, Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Thomas Baker, R-Kotzebue, upheld the objection.

Democratic and Independent members McCormick, Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, and Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, voted to hear the presentation on the condition that the lawsuit was not addressed.

Ruffridge said he would have voted to hear the presentation, but because some of the solutions proposed by the ACLU were mentioned in the lawsuit, he thought the whole discussion would run afoul of the rule.

That reasoning suggests that it was the solutions the civil rights group sought that took the topic off the table for lawmakers.

That logic has not stopped House or Senate Health and Social Services Committees from discussing a pair of bills that would increase access to food stamp benefits and speed processing times while there were lawsuits pending against the state.

The bills were a response to a backlog of crisis proportions in the state’s Division of Public Assistance that kept Alaskans from getting their benefits in a timely manner from 2022 until early this year.

McCabe said on Tuesday that ACLU lawyers should have known better than to bring up a subject in active litigation.

“They’ve been around the block a few times, they should know that they’re not allowed to adjudicate a case in a legislative committee hearing,” he said.

Despite his vote, McCabe said he was open to hearing from the ACLU and other groups, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, which filed a resolution asking for an independent federal investigation into the disproportionate deaths of Alaska Native people in custody, and the Department of Corrections. DOC officials were not invited to testify on Tuesday.

McCormick called the move a “misuse of procedure” and said it felt like an attempt to skirt hard conversations about deaths in custody.

He apologized to the ACLU and relatives of deceased inmates who had called in to speak as he closed the committee meeting without hearing their testimony.

“I failed you today as chair of this committee. I didn’t expect my vice chair to do this,” he said, and noted how intractable the problem of inmate deaths could be without discussion in the Capitol.

“I want to apologize that we’re failing citizens of the state and allowing them to die in our custody.”

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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