Paul Harris, 69, died on Oct. 23 at Goose Creek Correctional Center, becoming the 16th person to die in the state’s prison system this year, according to an Alaska Department of Corrections press release on Tuesday.
With this death, Corrections surpassed the highest number of in-custody deaths the department has seen in the past decade, the time period for which records are immediately available. In 2015, 15 people died in Corrections custody. That’s in contrast to four people who died in custody in the decade low of 2019.
In its release, Corrections stated that Harris, who was sentenced, had been in custody since June 14, 2016. The release said Harris’ death was “expected.”
Corrections has recently faced criticism and scrutiny over the high number of in-custody deaths this year. Some family members have struggled to get information from Corrections about how their loved one died.
Of the 16 deaths this year, several individuals have been in their 20s or 30s, and died after only a short time in state care. Two deaths in August occurred after less than 24 hours. At least two people have died by suicide — 20-year-old Kitty Douglas, as reported by Alaska Public Media, and 31-year-old James Rider. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has identified through its research a third death by suicide and suspects more. Several who died this year had not been sentenced.
The ACLU of Alaska on Oct. 14 formally requested that Gov. Mike Dunleavy initiate an independent review of the deaths of Alaskans while in Corrections custody. An ACLU spokesperson said the governor has not responded to the request.
At a press conference last week, Dunleavy said none of the people to die in Corrections custody this year through then “died as a result of others,” like murder or “otherwise inappropriate dealings with the individuals in prison.” Acting Corrections Commissioner Winkelman said at the press conference the deaths are “not unusual.”
At the Alaska Federation of Natives’ forum for the candidates for governor on Saturday, Dunleavy said, “we always have, unfortunately, folks that pass away in our care in corrections.”
Harris’ next of kin has been notified, and no foul play is suspected. The Alaska State Troopers investigate every in-custody death and the State Medical Examiner’s Office determines the cause. Citing confidentiality, Corrections does not release medical information.