The Alaska Department of Corrections acted wrongly when correctional officers forced a group of 12 male inmates in Seward to strip naked in front of female staff and left them in cells for hours at a time in 2013, according to an investigation by the Alaska Ombudsman’s office.
The report details an incident dating back to Aug. 16, 2013 in the prison, a facility operated by the Alaska Department of Corrections near Seward that can house up to 500 adult men, many of whom are serving long-term sentences. The inmate who complained claimed that correctional officers took him and 11 other inmates out of their cells “for no reason,” shackled them in handcuffs and forced them to strip naked in front of female staff.
“The complainant said the correctional officers told him to submit again to handcuffs while he was naked or they would force him to submit,” the report states.
The inmate also claimed the inmates were walked to another housing unit, ridiculed and laughed at by correctional officers on the way, then placed in cells naked and left without clothing for several hours. The cells were cold, filled with debris, had blood on the walls and feces on the floor and had no running water or toilets, the inmate claimed.
Though he never received a disciplinary write-up, the inmate claimed that the correctional officers were retaliating after an incident about 10 days before, on the night of Aug. 5–6. The inmates, reportedly upset by an order to make their beds and clean their rooms, broke apart the porcelain toils in their cells and used the parts to smash windows and sinks, flooding the cells in the House 3 Juliet Mod. Correctional officers moved the inmates one by one to another housing unit, and the inmates who participated were placed in the Bravo Mod of House 1, according to the ombudsman’s report.
On Aug. 16, one inmate broke off a showerhead, resulting in more flooding in the Bravo Mod. The other Bravo Mod inmates “yelled and screamed support” for the inmate while he was in the shower, “encouraging him to destroy state property.”
Staff shut off the water to the housing unit and removed the inmate from the cell, spraying him with pepper spray when he refused to cooperate. They then strip-searched him for contraband, gave him underwear and put him in another housing unit in the Charlie Mod, according to the report. He was later given a disciplinary write-up, the only inmate to be given one in the incident.
The other inmates were then taken from their cells, strip-searched them and moved them, still naked, to the Charlie Mod. They were left naked in the cells for up to 12 hours and didn’t receive blankets or beds until the following day at 10 p.m., according to Department of Corrections records, the report states.
The inmate filed a complaint at Spring Creek on Aug. 23, and the Facility Standard Officer did not forward it to the lieutenant until Sept. 19, 22 days after the inmate filed the grievance. The lieutenant’s investigation stated that the inmate who complained had participated in a group demonstration and had to be searched, was given a safety smock or blanket to cover himself and got state clothing the next morning. Several other inmates filed complaints similar to the first, and the Department of Corrections’ responses were similar, according to the ombudsman’s report.
In correspondence with the Department of Corrections about the complaint, department officials held the position that the correctional officers had justified in responding to the inmates’ actions,
The ombudsman’s office found that the officers acted contrary to law and unreasonably.
“One staff member stated that it took time to round enough (smocks) or (blankets) for the inmates,” the report states. “It is not reasonable that it took 12 hours to locate 12 smocks or blankets within the facility. Even if it were, it was unreasonable to leave the inmates naked in cold cells with only metal or concrete meds to sit on. That decision makes it clear to the Ombudsman that this was a punitive measure and not a security measure.”
The ombudsman also found the Department of Corrections did not answer the grievances correctly and that it should have provided disciplinary write-ups for the inmates. The Department of Corrections did not dispute any of the findings in the report.
It took a long time to produce because the incident was complicated, said state ombudsman Kate Burkhart.
“The allegations are shocking, so the staff wanted to be very thorough and deliberate,” she said. “It required the review of video evidence, documentary evidence. We deposed multiple witnesses, so it was a lengthy, very detail oriented investigation.”
The report makes a number of recommendations, some of which the Department of Corrections has begun implementing already and others the department declined to accept. One of those was a recommendation for the correctional officers to wear body cameras to help clear up inmate complaints. It’s something police officers have begun doing in departments across the country, including in Bethel and Ketchikan, both to protect the public and to protect officers.
The Department of Corrections currently provides body cameras for staff in Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau and previously provided them at Spring Creek in 2015, but they have since been removed because of concerns from the correctional officers and union representatives “that the recordings would be used unfairly against the officers,” the report states. Implementing body cameras would be cost-prohibitive and the department “expected significant opposition from the staff and union representatives” if the department mandated use of body cameras across all institutions, the report states.
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Megan Edge wrote in an email that the department is still drafting policies for the use of body cameras at other institutions.
Neither the department nor the ombudsman’s office could comment on whether the correctional officers involved in the incident had been dismissed.
Inmates have a direct right to call the ombudsman’s office with concerns about the Department of Corrections’ actions. About 30 percent of the calls that come through to the office are about the Department of Corrections, Burkhart said.
Burkhart said the ombudsman’s office does not have authority to enforce recommendations made in reports — that’s up to the agency or to the Legislature.
“That’s why we publish these reports,” she said. “…It also puts the public on notice, because governmental power comes from the people … I come from a similar organization that also had the power to advise but not to enforce. The more the recommendations we make are based in evidence and are reasonable and practical and are hopefully collaborative with the agency, the more likely they are to be implemented. As we more forward, my goal is that the value of the recommendation will lend itself to implementation.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.