Review calls for changes in Alaska Department of Corrections

JUNEAU — A review of the Alaska Department of Corrections ordered by Gov. Bill Walker after several inmate deaths found outdated policies, cases of lax or informal consequences for apparent employee misconduct, and deep mistrust between corrections staff and management.

At a news conference in Anchorage, Walker called the report released Monday troubling. He said he wanted new leadership and accepted the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Ron Taylor, whom he appointed in January.

Walt Monegan, a former commissioner of Public Safety, will serve as acting interim commissioner.

The report also raised issues with the use of solitary confinement, a state law allowing for intoxicated individuals to be held in prison for protective custody, and training for corrections employees.

The review was conducted over 11 weeks by Dean Williams, a special assistant to Walker, and Joe Hanlon, a former FBI agent. During that period, two deaths occurred.

Among other things, the review recommends updating all department policies. Many of the policies haven’t been updated since 2002 and others since the 1980s.

A suicide prevention policy was last updated 20 years ago, though the review team was told it has been rewritten and is awaiting approval. There was no formalized death investigation policy until a year ago, the report states.

The review also calls for an independent internal team for administrative and criminal investigations that reports outside the department. The review found problems with the current process, including inexperienced investigators and ambivalence about what personnel actions, if any, should be taken.

According to the review, in one case, video footage corroborated an assault by a correctional officer on an inmate. While law enforcement sent the case to prosecutors for review, the department hadn’t conducted a personnel investigation.

In another case, the review says video footage showed a correctional officer’s claim of an assault by an inmate to be false. Management called for retraining for the officer. After the review team questioned management about the case, the officer was dismissed, the report states.

Williams and Hanlon also received “independent, credible” reports of two cases of “significant management misconduct” in which both managers were “quietly transferred to new positions with no formal discipline.” The report provides no further details.

“The lack of meaningful consequences for these management failings — widely evident to staff — erodes morale and lowers the bar for employee conduct,” the report states.

The review called for steps to reduce the use of solitary confinement.

It also calls for an end to admitting individuals incapacitated by alcohol or drugs in public to prison for protective custody. There is confusion about that law, which allows for intoxicated people to be held in detention facilities if an appropriate health facility or their own home is not available.

Placing responsibility for the safety of medically unstable individuals on prisons significantly burdens correction staff, puts affected individuals at risk and raises the liability risk for the prison system, the report states.

One of the deaths reviewed was that of Gilbert Joseph, admitted to a Fairbanks corrections center in August on one such protective hold. An initial timeline of events provided by facility staff indicated no suspicious or aggressive behavior toward Joseph and a death investigation report by the Alaska State Troopers indicated the same. But videos reviewed by Williams and Hanlon showed assaults on Joseph by a cellmate, the report states.

The Troopers’ and Corrections’ investigators apparently missed the assaults on a grainy video they reviewed and apparently were unaware of a second, clearer video, which didn’t surface until the review team got involved, the report states.

Monegan said he would use the report as a guide for what needs to be addressed.

Monegan was fired as Public Safety commissioner in 2008 by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. Critics claim Palin fired him after he refused to dismiss a state trooper who had been involved in a contentious divorce with Palin’s sister. Palin said Monegan was let go because of a disagreement over budget priorities.

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