In an intensive care unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, Yad Duu Quay Mark Cook Jr. was on life-support Monday. He’d been declared dead, but was an organ donor, so he remained hooked up to the machines.
Cook’s family sang a Lingít entrance and exit song, often used for ceremonies. Some read scripture and prayers.
“We’re going to do a song for you,” Ernestine Hanlon-Abel told her grandson in his hospital bed. “This is to help you exit this physical world, and you are entering a new journey.”
Cook is the third person to die in Alaska Department of Corrections custody this year. His family says he died by suicide after hanging himself at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, where they say he’d spent weeks in solitary confinement with debilitating back pain.
And his death fits a pattern. In a recent investigation, the Anchorage Daily News reported that suicides in Alaska jails “unfolded at a startling pace” last year — all among people who were awaiting trial — and that the department has long faced criticism that it does not do enough to prevent suicides.
From a back injury to jail
Hanlon-Abel says her grandson was the best Lingít dancer she’s ever seen. But in February, he visited the local health clinic in Hoonah with a back injury and left with pain so bad that he could barely walk.
Cook’s grandparents say that he got upset at the clinic, yelled and threatened to sue. The next day, Hoonah police arrested him on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and property damage. His family could not meet the conditions for his release.
Cook was later transferred to Lemon Creek in Juneau because, his family said, he could not get the medical care he needed at the Hoonah jail. They said they were in touch with him throughout his time at Lemon Creek, and he didn’t get much care there, either.
“He was in tremendous pain, 24 hours a day,” said his grandfather, Thomas Abel.
Abel said that at Lemon Creek, Cook often fell down and had a hard time controlling when he went to the bathroom — that sometimes he was left sitting in his own waste for hours before anyone would come to help him clean up. A Department of Corrections spokesperson denied this in an email but declined to answer other questions about Cook’s care and treatment while at Lemon Creek.
And family members say that because of his back problems, Cook was placed in solitary confinement about three weeks before he died.
Cook’s father, Mark Cook Sr., said he spoke with an Alaska State Trooper in the emergency room about what happened on April 22. According to Cook Sr., the trooper said Cook used his bedsheets to hang himself from a vent after putting tape over the room’s security camera — and that it was 30 minutes before security found him.
The troopers confirmed the manner of Cookʼs death but referred KTOO to the Department of Corrections for details. The department did not answer questions about whether they followed their suicide prevention procedures.
‘Conditions of confinement that are identical to solitary’
Cook’s family believes his suicide was a result of untreated back pain and solitary confinement.
“He couldn’t handle the pain anymore,” said Jodee Shrock, Cookʼs mother. “They just threw him a cage and left him there. He never would have killed himself had he gotten help for what was wrong with him.”
Christina Love of Haven House, an organization that works with women leaving prison, backs up the family’s claim that Cook was in solitary confinement. She said Wednesday that she’d heard that from clients and confirmed it with prison staff.
Megan Edge is with the American Civil Liberties Union in Alaska. She said her organization has heard from a number of people who got placed in what amounted to solitary confinement for medical reasons.
“DOC often says that it’s not solitary confinement — they’re not in trouble,” Edge said. “But they’re living in conditions of confinement that are identical to solitary confinement.”
Edge said solitary confinement is inhumane, and that the Department of Corrections hasn’t explained why inmates with medical issues would face those conditions. She said the ACLU is investigating Cookʼs death.
A department spokesperson told KTOO that it “does not practice true ‘solitary’ confinement, as most cells have two bunks” but declined to comment on whether or not Cook was kept separate from other inmates.
Meanwhile, Cook’s family thinks he should not have been in jail at all. Family members say they feel Cook’s bail was unreasonably high for the offense, and they don’t understand why a judge said Cook could not stay with his grandparents if he was released.
Edge said it’s important to remember that Cook had yet to go to trial for his case, which involved two misdemeanors.
“He’s not been sentenced to death,” she said. “He’s not been sentenced to anything.”
‘He made everything fun’
On Tuesday, at a Juneau hotel, 10 of Cook’s loved ones shared stories about who he was, often speaking of his giving spirit. In his 27 years, Cook was a father, an EMT and a musician.
Heather Kunigelis is the mother of Cook’s daughter Ernestine. She remembers being at a conference with Cook. When some kind of emergency broke out, Cook ran into the building while the crowd rushed out.
“That just is who he was,” she said. “And it’s gotten him in trouble sometimes, but you know, that was who he was.”
Cook’s uncle, Leif Abel, said he was looking forward to hiring Cook to work on his fishing boat this summer. He said he thinks hard about the people he invites on board.
“Who do you want on your boat? Well, Mark was one because it would have just been fun,” he said. “He made everything fun.”
Hanlon-Abel said she hopes her grandson’s choice to be an organ donor will mean that another family won’t grieve for their child.
“That’s just like him,” she said. “He’s gone and he’s still giving.”
Cook Sr. said hospital staff told him that up to a dozen people could benefit from his son’s organ donations.
This story has been updated to include comment from the Alaska Department of Corrections.