Record 18 Deaths in Alaska State Prisons Leads to Lawsuits for Men Awaiting Misdemeanor Trials – ACLU Requests ‘Independent Review’ 

By Crescenzo Vellucci

The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

JUNEAU, AK – The state of Alaska was sued twice last week for wrongful deaths with plaintiff lawyers citing a record 18 people who died in custody at Alaska Dept. of Corrections facilities in 2022—the ACLU is asking for an “independent review of the Alaska Department of Corrections.”

Both incarcerated men in the lawsuits died in pretrial custody, and had been convicted of nothing, asserted the ACLU.

The ACLU of Alaska and the law firm of Friedman Rubin said they filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of James Rider.

Attorney Vance Sanders filed a wrongful death lawsuit against DOC for the death of Mark Cook, Jr., who died in DOC custody.

The ACLU charged 18 people—a “record”—died while in custody in 2022, and the “lawsuits are the result of the ACLU of Alaska Prison Project’s investigation into deaths in DOC custody.”

“Alaska does not have the death penalty, but 18 people died in Alaska’s prisons last year and we have seen eight so far this year. For these Alaskans, incarceration is a death sentence,” said ACLU of Alaska Prison Project Director Megan Edge.

Edge added, “We are asking for an independent review of deaths in DOC custody. Then we can begin to make changes that keep people in DOC custody safer and reduce the number of tragedies reverberating from our prisons into our communities.”

The ACLU claimed Rider, 31, died after begging for help.

The ACLU suit said Rider was incarcerated at Mat-Su Pretrial before dying by suicide on September 2022. Rider, said the pleading, “had a history of complex substance misuse and mental health issues.” 

“During the 11 days he was incarcerated before his death, Rider’s family says he was ‘begging’ for mental health help but did not receive it. He was a father of three,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“James and I share a beautiful, brilliant 8-year-old son, who’ll now grow up without knowing his dad,” said Tamara Halliburton. “Even the simplest things, like watching a children’s movie, remind him of the loss of James, which causes him to re-live those feelings and emotions. 

“Our family decided to be a part of this for James, our son, and to hopefully end the cycles of harm that have continued to bring forth the trauma associated with his loss.”

In April, Cook, 27, was remanded in Hoonah on misdemeanor charges while awaiting back surgery. He was transported to Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau to receive medical care for his severe back pain. 

However, claimed lawyers, Cook instead, was placed in solitary confinement and, like Rider, ultimately died by suicide on April 23, 2023. Cook was Tlingit and adopted into the Haida nation.  

According to the provided pleading, Cook “had unbearable pain when he tried to urinate or defecate. On at least one occasion, Mr. Cook fell off the toilet in his cell, and lay on the concrete floor to seek to obtain relief for his pain. While there, he defecated and urinated on himself.”

“This instance would have been observed by LCCC staff via the camera in Mr. Cook’s cell. However, on information and belief, Mr. Cook laid on the floor in his own feces and urine until a LCCC staff member finally assisted him,” said the lawsuit.

“My grandson got a death sentence for a misdemeanor. His bail was $7,500,” said Tom Abel, Cook’s grandfather. 

Abel added, “He was in solitary confinement, suffering from severe debilitating back pain when he died. He was alone. Alaska Native people make up the largest percentage of incarcerated people in our state, my grandson was one of them.  Something has to change. Something is wrong with this system.”

In addition to asking for monetary damages of $300,000 or more, the ACLU legal action requests the court conduct an “independent review of the Alaska Department of Corrections.”

The ACLU wants an “audit of Alaska DOC finances and a review of available programming for Alaska DOC inmates, Alaska DOC’s medical screenings, practices, and procedures, Alaska DOC’s suicide watch protocols, Alaska DOC’s staffing practices and any staffing shortages, Alaska DOC’s use of solitary confinement and segregated confinement, and the availability and use of drug and alcohol rehabilitation for Alaska DOC inmates.”

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