Senator Berta Gardner

July 17, 2014

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Spenard, and UMed

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Anchorage, AK 99501
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Legislative Hearing on Inmate Fatalities

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Senator Gardner taking notes at the hearing.
Senator Gardner taking notes at the hearing.

         On Tuesday I joined several House and Senate colleagues in a legislative hearing regarding the six inmate deaths reported this year.

         We heard from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, Deputy Director of Inmate Health Care Laura Brooks, Brad Wilson of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, and family members of the deceased inmates.

         I want to share with you what we learned:

         The number of deaths of inmates in the state correctional system this year is not outside the normal range.  Deaths occur by murder, suicide and through illness and age.  Every death is a matter of concern and the system strives for zero deaths by murder and suicide, of course.  Any suspicious death is investigated by State Troopers and by the Department of Corrections.  The investigations can be time-consuming and little information can be released until they are complete.   Information about individuals, such as medical  and mental health conditions are also held confidential by federal and state law.  This lack of prompt information and answers is a cause of concern for the community and of angst for families.

         One of the more sobering facts presented was that 65% of the prison population are Mental Health Trust beneficiaries, with approximately 83% of those suffering from a mental illness.   There is a direct link between the length of incarceration and being a beneficiary of the Trust: those suffering from mental illness are spending much longer times in jail, often twice as long, and have higher recidivism rates.

         Obviously prison is not the best solution for Alaskans with mental illness and is a very expensive policy for the state.  There is general agreement that mental health courts, through providing accountability as well as guidance and supportive services is showing great promise as a way to deal with those citizens whose mental health problems make it difficult for them to live unsupported in our communities and who cause chaos and destruction when left to their own devices.

         There was also disagreement between the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Correctional Officers as to whether or not our prisons have adequate staffing levels. The DOC believes they have sufficient staff, while Correctional Officers contend that they do not.

         One thing was certainly made clear to me during the hearing:

         If inmate death investigations were performed by an independent third party the public would have a greater level of confidence in the conclusions reached.  Even if the DOC is doing a great job, given the resources they have, an independent third party would be able to give a perspective from outside the institution and possibly identify changes to improve the safety of both inmates and correctional officers.

         If you would like to watch the hearing online, it can be found here.

         I’ll be closely following these issues and am still awaiting specific information about the investigations of the deaths this year.  

         I encourage you to contact me with any questions or concerns you have.

         I’m Berta and I’m still listening,

         If you have any questions, please feel free to contact my office

signed: Berta


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