Information on prisoner deaths expensive to get

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) ­– The Alaska Department of Law is considering declassifying an unpublished regulation on investigating the deaths of prisoners in state custody, a deputy commissioner with the Department of Corrections said.

Sherrie Daigle told the Anchorage Daily News that she only recently became aware of the regulation. But she said it could not be shared with the public now because the information could “threaten the safety and security of institutions.” Daigle did not say how.

Under state public records law, the newspaper requested copies of the Department of Corrections' internal investigation documents related to inmate deaths from 2000 to 2012. The idea was to look at how the department evaluates its performance in cases of

prisoners dying while in state custody. The department said more recent investigations could not be released because they were prepared ahead of possible litigation for which the statute of limitations remains in effect.

The paper was told it would cost more than $4,000 and take more than 100 hours to locate and copy the files. Details of the deaths of the more than 130 people who have died while in state custody since 2000 are scattered across medical records, attorney notes and incident reports in boxes in records warehouses and institutions, department officials said.

Daigle wrote that the one instance where there might be a complete written account of the circumstances surrounding a death is when a “report is

forwarded to the Department's legal counsel,” ahead of a possible lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. But those are considered attorney-client communications, and therefore the state can refuse to release them, she said.

Between April and June this year, five people died on the department's watch. One was classified a suicide, one a

homicide and three inmates were found suddenly dead in their cells.

The department has said the deaths are not unusual because people often come to jail with significant health problems. In each case, the department insisted it was conducting an internal investigation.

But what constitutes a death investigation is inconsistent. What officials often refer to as death investigations are

“special incident reports,” Daigle said. And they vary in size and scope. While all include a brief description of what happened such as one case in which an inmate

“vomiting blood” later died at a hospital they contain little in the way of examining the department's response and whether everyone involved did their jobs properly.

Todd Wilcox, a Utah-based, nationally known authority on correctional health care, said many states rely on another law enforcement agency to

investigate such deaths. Daigle said the Alaska State Troopers are notified of each in-custody death, but their responsibility is limited to determining whether a crime was committed.

A legislative hearing on the department's practices is

scheduled for Tuesday in Anchorage.


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