EDITORIAL: Alaska’s prison system is killing Alaskans

Joseph Murphy was having a bad morning.

On Aug. 14, he woke up in jail. The night before, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.165 percent, he had been taken to Lemon Creek Correctional Center for his own protection and left alone in a cell under the supervision of a camera.

When he woke up, he was sober and angry. He wanted out. He wanted to go home.

He had been accused of no crime, and under state law, he should have been allowed to leave.

He was not.

He grew angrier.

He banged his cell door and shouted to be let out. His chest started to hurt — he had heart problems and was taking medication.

A corrections officer stopped by his cell and told him to knock off the banging and suck it up. He would be getting out soon. Murphy asked for his heart pills.

Tempers flared. Murphy and the corrections officer started shouting at each other, swearing at each other.

Murphy’s chest hurt worse.

“I don’t care,” the corrections officer told Murphy. “You could die right now, and I don’t care.”

They swore some more at each other, and the corrections officer left.

Murphy, locked in his cell, paced back and forth. He was sweating. Six minutes after the corrections officer left, Murphy collapsed to his hands and knees. He got up again, and fell again.

He did not get up.

Twenty-nine minutes after the corrections officer left Murphy, another arrived to deliver breakfast.

On the floor of the cell was Murphy, dead.

He is not alone. Since Gov. Bill Walker took office in December, 15 people have died in Alaska’s prisons.

Joseph Murphy’s last minutes are recounted in the report released Monday by a pair of special investigators appointed by Gov. Bill Walker. The investigators’ report is damning. It finds comprehensive problems and mistakes by the Alaska Department of Corrections. It finds that corrections officers, at times understaffed, undertrained and mismanaged, have violated the rights of guilty and innocent Alaskans alike. Simply listing the problems shows their extent:

• Correctional officers repeatedly violated inmates’ legal due process rights;

• Drunken and intoxicated people were held in protective custody for illegal lengths of time;

• Investigations of inmate deaths were not conducted properly;

• Several juveniles have been kept in solitary confinement for more than a year;

• Newly hired corrections officers sometimes go months without attending the training academy;

• Medical and mental health employees do not report to prison superintendents;

• Many prison policies have not been updated since the 1980s;

• Correctional officers were not adequately searched for contraband;

• Misconduct by corrections officers and management was not always punished.

We cannot help but think that all of these problems — every single one, including the death of Joseph Murphy — were avoidable.

In the past few years, the Juneau Empire and the Alaska Dispatch News have repeatedly investigated the surge in prison deaths that has afflicted Alaska. Again and again, we have requested information about these deaths and about the practices of Department of Corrections. We have investigated the problems reported by inmates and we have covered the actions of the state ombudsman in responding to complaints about the prison system.

Almost inevitably, our reporting has been met by a stone wall of silence from the Department of Corrections. The department has repeatedly denied our requests for information, for comments, for simple reports about what exactly happened.

The Department of Corrections is a public agency. It is supposed to be answerable to all Alaskans. Instead, it concealed its actions with silence and denials, and now 15 people are dead because no one knew what was killing them.

It was neglect — sheer neglect on the part of administrators past and present, those who cared more about protecting their jobs and concealing shame than fixing problems.

Inadequate training and staffing, coupled with outdated policies and a culture of secrecy have allowed an infection of mistakes to turn septic. We fully expect criminal charges to be brought against some members of the Department of Corrections as a result of their negligence, and based on the reports we have read, those charges will be amply deserved. That’s not to say all corrections employees are to blame. Just as there were a few who didn’t follow the rules, there are many more who have served dutifully in their roles.

It would be easy — and wrong — to simply say that these are inmates and that they should not have committed the crimes that landed them in jail. Joseph Murphy was no criminal. He had not committed a crime, and yet our prison system and its policies killed him just as surely as if he had been hanged on the steps of our capitol building.

On Monday, Walker accepted the resignation of corrections commissioner Ron Taylor, a good-natured man whom Walker himself appointed to the job in January. Now comes Walt Monegan, a man whose integrity was shown during the Troopergate scandal of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Monegan faces a mammoth task, but it is a necessary and urgent one. Alaskans are quite literally dying as a result of problems in the Department of Corrections.

Updated: 
11/18/2015 - 3:32pm

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