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Republican lawmakers abruptly cancel hearing on Alaska prison deaths over legal concerns

Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, Alaska in June 2023. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)
Clarise Larson
Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, Alaska in June 2023.

The coffee was hot. The slide deck was cued up. And Jacqueline Shepherd, a prison investigator and intake attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alaska, was ready to tell lawmakers some grim news.

“When planning for today, I expected to talk to you about three unreported deaths that I uncovered in 2023,” she told Alaska Public Media. “But in the past few weeks, I’ve uncovered a murder that occurred in [Alaska Department of Corrections] custody that was never reported to the family.”

Shepherd was reading from testimony she prepared for the March 26 8 a.m. meeting of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee. The committee was scheduled to hear a presentation from the ACLU of Alaska on what could be done to address a surge in deaths in Alaska Department of Corrections custody.  

But just as the hearing was beginning, it was called off. The committee’s four Republicans overruled a member of their own caucus and canceled the presentation, citing concerns about ongoing litigation. So Shepherd sat down for an interview instead.

Shepherd declined to name the victim of the alleged homicide. In an email on March 27, Alaska Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tim DeSpain said that the Alaska Bureau of Investigation had opened a probe into the Jan. 12, 2024 death of Anchorage Correctional Complex inmate Joshua Zimmerman.

“Information learned during the investigation and autopsy results now suggest that Zimmerman’s death may be suspicious in nature and the investigation is currently ongoing,” DeSpain wrote.

An earlier Department of Corrections news release from January announcing Zimmerman’s death said foul play was not suspected. 

Zimmerman was one of at least three dozen inmates who have died in custody since 2022, according to a report the ACLU provided to committee members. 

“Unfortunately, I had to be the one to break the news to this young man’s father that his son, who they were told by DOC had died of natural causes or a drug overdose, had actually been murdered. The father then contacted the troopers and they confirmed his son’s death was a homicide,” Shepherd said.

The prison deaths detailed by the ACLU include three in 2023 that occurred when inmates were released from custody while hospitalized and unconscious, just before their deaths. 

“In 2021, 19 inmates died in New York City prisons. In 2022, 18 died in Alaska prisons,” Shepherd said. “The federal courts in New York intervened in 2021 and threatened to relieve the city of New York of its responsibility of running the prisons because 19 deaths is unacceptable.”

“If you do the math, based on how many prisoners we have in Alaska, basically, that’s two times as many deaths as New York that year,” Shepherd said.

Set to testify along with Shepherd was a former commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Dean Williams.

“I faced very similar circumstances when I took the job,” Williams said in an interview. “Over those three years that I was commissioner here, I worked to improve conditions for the staff and the incarcerated population through several specific acts.”

A then-record 15 people had died in Alaska’s jails and prisons in 2015, the year before Williams took office. Former Gov. Bill Walker hired Williams as a special assistant to produce a report detailing what had gone wrong. 

The 20-page administrative review Williams produced found that dysfunction at the department had contributed to at least six deaths, the Anchorage Daily News reported at the time

“It’s the lack of follow-through on investigations when there’s a death,” Walker said at a 2015 news conference announcing the report’s findings. “The ones that were looked into were not done adequately. It was very disturbing.”

Walker fired his corrections commissioner after less than a year on the job and hired Williams as his replacement shortly afterward.

During his tenure as commissioner from 2016 to 2018, Williams implemented a series of reforms, including a new internal affairs desk known as the Professional Conduct Unit.

And in late 2018, as Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office, Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, now the lieutenant governor and a candidate for Alaska’s at-large United States House seat, dissolved the Professional Conduct Unit, citing cost savings. 

Alaska set a new record for in-custody deaths four years later.

In an email, Alaska Department of Corrections spokesperson Betsy Holley said that the department “currently has no plans to reinstate a Professional Conduct Unit.” She said an “Internal Review Team” is dispatched to respond to every “critical incident.” 

She said that an Alaska State Trooper is assigned to the department to investigate deaths and reports of wrongdoing.

After a stint directing Colorado’s corrections department, Williams is now in private practice as a consultant. He flew up to speak to the Legislature as part of the ACLU’s presentation. 

But the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee never heard what the invited presenters had prepared.

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake and the vice chair of the committee, asked the committee chair, Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, to cancel the presentation, citing a legislative rule advising lawmakers not to debate or discuss “any matter awaiting adjudication before a judicial tribunal.” 

The ACLU of Alaska is a co-counsel in a wrongful death lawsuit against the state related to the death of James Rider, one of the 18 people who died in custody in 2022.

“I think participating in any conversation about this subject might unintentionally make us witnesses to the ongoing legal proceedings,” McCabe said. “Given the legal implications surrounding this situation, I object to proceeding on this matter until the legal proceedings have been resolved.”

After some back-and-forth, McCabe and three other Republicans on the committee voted to overrule McCormick and cancel the presentation. 

McCormick said that he’s embarrassed and disappointed that lawmakers were unable to hear Williams, Shepherd, and Tom Abel, the grandfather of Mark Cook Jr., a Hoonah man who died in Lemon Creek Correctional Center in 2023.

McCormick said that the spike in inmate deaths is an important issue that deserves legislative scrutiny.

“I know growing up in rural Alaska, when someone is incarcerated they come out, oftentimes, a different person,” McCormick said. “And for them not to come out at all is worse, tenfold.”

McCormick is a Democrat who caucuses with McCabe in the Republican-led majority, and he said that his own vice chairman’s move to cancel the presentation was a surprise.

“I felt like I had my pants pulled down and I was spanked on live television,” McCormick said. “[I] just felt like I got hung out to dry by people who are supposed to have my back.”

The objection centered on Williams’ 2015 report and its recommendations, which are cited in the ACLU lawsuit.

Megan Edge, the director of the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project, said her group had no plans to discuss details of the pending case. She said McCabe’s objection was unfounded.

“Much of what the Legislature discusses is actively being litigated by one group or another — voting trans rights, abortion, reproductive care — so that’s not that’s not unique,” Edge said. “What’s unique is that some of the members of this committee spoke today and decided that the lives of 5,000 Alaskans sitting in jail cells just don’t matter to them.”

In a brief interview after the hearing, McCabe stood by his vote to cancel the hearing.

“Having one side in front of us and asking questions that can be used in court is not good policy,” McCabe said. “If the Department of Corrections had been invited, or if there had been, you know, two sides, or even if it had been in a courtroom it’d be a different deal, but we can’t do that from the Community and Regional Affairs Committee.”

“I mean, this could be, you know, could be a multimillion dollar lawsuit,” McCabe added.

Alaska Public Media’s Chris Klint contributed reporting from Anchorage.
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