In her new role as Alaska’s corrections commissioner, Jen Winkleman gave her first presentation to state lawmakers on Thursday, when she appeared before the House Judiciary Committee.
Winkleman gave a broad overview on the inmates in state custody and waited until the end of her presentation to address a topic that DOC was asked about a lot last year.
“I would be remiss if I did not speak to the inmate deaths,” Winkleman said. “Eleven were natural. Seven were suicides. There was no homicide.”
There were a total of 18 deaths in 2022, the highest in the 20 years that the Department of Corrections has kept records on inmates who have died in custody. The next highest years were 16 in 2002, 15 in 2008 and 15 in 2015. It’s likely 2022 could be an all-time high for Alaska inmate deaths, since the prison population was much lower before the department began tracking them.
Winkelman also said none of the deaths last year were accidental – and that eight of the inmates who died had been sentenced, while another ten were awaiting sentencing. She said half of the inmates, who died of natural causes, were receiving end-of-life care.
“That is too many. I absolutely know that,” Winkeman told lawmakers. “They are somebody’s brother. They are somebody’s sister. They are somebody’s family member, by all means, but I do think it’s important to share some of the things that we have found and what we have done.”
Winkleman told the committee that information about the 2022 inmate deaths is now on DOC’s website. Despite demands from groups like the Alaska Civil Liberties Union to disclose the causes of death, DOC had kept that secret until now, other than to say some of them had been anticipated.
Winkleman told lawmakers the state cannot say very much about the circumstances surrounding an inmate’s death, because Alaska prisons are also medical facilities, governed by privacy laws. She assured the committee that inmates who suffered terminal illness were given compassionate care.
The commissioner told the committee that the high number of deaths is not unusual, given the overall poor health of inmates when they enter Alaska prisons.
“We have a really unhealthy population that comes to us,” she said. “Stats have shown that 50 percent have some kind of a chronic medical condition beyond a common cold or COVID.”
“Eighty percent, I think we found, haven’t been to a doctor in quite a while, if ever.” she said.
Winkleman also told the committee that two divisions within the department were involved in investigating last year’s deaths – Institutions and Health and Rehabilitative Services, as well as the Department of Public Safety and the state medical examiner.
“It’s always been a work in progress,” Winkleman said. “We just grow and learn from any experience that we’ve gone through, particularly in this last year.”
The commissioner also said she has a new program coordinator in her office, hired to track and assess inmate deaths with a focus on suicide prevention.
Winkleman said the department is working with Project 2025, a national program that aims to reduce inmate suicides by 20 percent.
The commissioner also had praise for the department’s workers and says the deaths have taken a toll on them.
Last year, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union called on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to conduct an independent investigation into the deaths.
Megan Edge, ACLU’s Alaska Prison Project director, says the commissioner’s report to lawmakers outlined a number of positive steps, but it’s not enough.
“If DOC is investigating itself, I don’t have a lot of confidence in that,” Edge said. “They could have been investigating themselves all last year. There was no transparency. No accountability.”
“The Department of Corrections has been able to operate under this veil of secrecy, and it has to stop,” she said.
Also of concern for the ACLU: Half of the inmates who died last year were from one minority — Alaska Native or American Indian — who make up only 15 percent of Alaska’s population.
So far, the Dunleavy administration has said it doesn’t think an independent investigation is necessary.