Walker sacks corrections commissioner after scathing report

Gov. Bill Walker 11 16 2015

Gov. Bill Walker during a press conference announcing the publication of a report finding fault with the Department of Corrections over inmate deaths, Nov. 16, 2015. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

A new report about the state’s Department of Corrections finds numerous problems that have contributed to dozens of recent deaths within Alaska’s prisons and jails. On Monday, Gov. Bill Walker released the 20-page administrative review to the public, and announced a new head for DOC.

In a conference room crowded with dozens of public officials on the 17th floor of the Atwood Building, Walker called the report’s findings “disturbing.”

“Since I’ve been in office we’ve had 15 people die while incarcerated,” Walker said at the start of his remarks.

After a number of deaths that took place in DOC custody, the administration asked for an outside review, which began in August. Investigators visited 13 correctional facilities, four halfway houses, a training facility and the community jail in Kotzebue, interviewing 150 corrections staffers, as well as 40 current and former prisoners.

They also reviewed DOC’s handling of 24 cases in which persons have died while in custody, and much of the report outlines how and why the responses to four particular instances were riddled with problems that reappear system-wide.

“The ones that were looked into,” Walker said, “were not done adequately. It was very disturbing.” He added that investigations into deaths lacked follow-through.

Walker’s big news was that he had accepted the resignation of DOC Commissioner Ron Taylor, who is relatively new to the job, appointed in January 2015. No evidence was offered, either in remarks or the report, that Taylor was at fault for specific problems identified within the department. But Walker told the room he wants to see a change in leadership and that implementing the report’s numerous recommendations would be the purview of DOC’s new leader.

Some of those recommendations are dramatic.

“Right now we kind of have a broken system,” said Dean Williams, special assistant to the governor and one of the report’s authors.

A large amount of the report recounts what Williams and co-investigator, retired FBI agent Joe Hanlon found when they looked into deaths in DOC facilities. In alarming detail, they lay out where they discovered “discrepancies, omissions, and inaccuracies.” That includes more than one case where investigators found evidence that DOC officials had missed in their initial reviews, as well as notes about suspicious movements and irregularities among staff members shortly before the death of a particularly difficult prisoner.

One of the report’s clearest calls is for investigations into deaths within DOC facilities to be handled through external review.

“The department has a hard time investigating itself, like many agencies do,” Williams said. “We’re recommending a separate arm, with existing resources, where we can investigate ourselves with high credibility and high trust.”

Williams and his co-author also discussed problems with DOC’s organizational structure, inconsistent administrative discipline, and a lack of adherence to protocol among corrections staff, citing one officer who went 10 months before receiving basic training. They also highlighted widespread use of solitary confinement, often for infractions like “failing to abide by sanitation rules,” feigning illness, “malingering,” or self-harm — all of which can result in 20 days of isolated segregation.

“I talked to four juveniles who are 17-years-old — they have now spent 12 months in solitary confinement,” Williams said, adding he believes the punishment is being used too liberally and beyond its original intent. The report spells out how an inmate’s only time beyond an isolated cell may be rare forays outside into a “cage-type area” or a hallway. “It’s a problem.”

One death described in the report was attributed in part to basic misunderstandings about Title 47, which sets the protocols on handling severely intoxicated individuals that are frequently brought to DOC facilities. Joseph Murphy  appeared to no longer be impaired the morning of Aug. 14, several hours after being brought to the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau with a blood alcohol concentration of .165. During an argument with Murphy after he’d requested medical care, a staff member reportedly yelled, “I don’t care, you could die right now and I don’t care.” Approximately 17 minutes later Murphy collapsed in his cell, and another 18 minutes after that staff started chest compressions before pronouncing him dead.

Throughout the half-hour conference and questions, officials walked a delicate line between identifying severe problems in the corrections system, but shying away from scapegoating anyone.

“I don’t think it’s to the point where we want to lay blame,” said Walt Monegan, whom Walker appointed as interim DOC commissioner. “What we want to do is learn what needs to be fixed and move forward.”

Like the governor, Monegan said he has no specific plans to reopen investigations into misconduct from DOC staff that may have contributed to deaths in detention. If they’ve been disciplined already, Monegan explained, there is a risk of double jeopardy.

Monegan outlined his intentions to act on specific recommendations from the report, including a detailed review of the department’s 223 policies and procedures, some of which haven’t been updated in more than 20 years.

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