‘I think it’s wrong’: Alaska ACLU seeks accountability for state inmate deaths

a man
Tom Abel was the keynote speaker at the ACLU’s “DEcarcerated” event, which held a brief ceremony for Alaska inmates who died in 2022 and 2023. Abel’s grandson, Mark Christopher Cook Jr., was one of the names read on the stage. Abel has another grandson in prison, also an Alaska Native. Abel told the gathering that the justice system is stacked against Alaska Natives. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

There’s incarceration and what the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska calls “decarceration” — a national movement to reduce the number of people in prison, an effort it says is a life-and-death matter in the state.

At a recent fundraiser, the ACLU again called attention to the high death rates in Alaska prisons. The organization also claims the state is misleading Alaskans about the actual death toll.   

The event was called “DEcarcerated,” and it packed a room with more than 100 people who came to learn more about the incarcerated. Tom Abel, a Haida from Southeast Alaska, was the keynote speaker.

“The Natives in prison did not get there by accident,” Abel said.

Abel’s grandson, Mark Cook Jr., died by suicide in April at Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center. His family says he was held for weeks in solitary confinement, despite existing health issues.

“We get arrested in disproportionate numbers,” Abel said. “Racism used to flourish in the not too distant past, and it still exists.”

family of Mark Cook
Mark Cookʼs father, Mark Cook Sr., and uncle, Leif Abel at a Juneau hotel after Cookʼs passing. (Yvonne Krumrey/KTOO)

Cook’s name was among those read during a remembrance of Alaska inmates who died in the last two years. His family has sued the Department of Corrections over his death at Lemon Creek. Abel said his grandson struggled with mental health problems and suffered from extreme back pain, which Abel believes the department failed to treat.

“This is genocide in its most heinous form,” Abel said.

Out of a record 18 inmate deaths last year, almost half were Alaska Native. DOC hasn’t released information on the racial makeup of 2023’s numbers — but Abel wants an independent investigation into all prison deaths, because he doesn’t want any other family to go through what his has experienced.

The Alaska ACLU joined a separate wrongful death lawsuit against DOC, filed in August by the family of James Rider over his suicide last year. Meghan Barker, an Alaska ACLU spokesperson, says Rider’s death was very similar to how Abel’s grandson died.

Barker says Rider suffered from a mental health crisis and told correctional officers he needed treatment. Had mental health care been provided, Barker said, it might have saved his life.

“His death stemmed from a medical emergency that was not treated, and it led to him taking his own life. From that we know, it was a preventable death,” Barker said.

Jimmie Singree and Lewis Jordan were not among the inmate deaths the Department of Corrections has reported this year. Barker said when Singree and Jordan were near death, they were hospitalized and then released from DOC custody.

“They’re trying to skirt responsibility, and trying to not have to be accountable for the practices and the conditions that are leading to outrageous numbers of Alaskans dying in their custody,” Barker said. 

Singree was 49, and Jordan was 53. Both died in April, just days apart. The ACLU says Singree was transported to the hospital brain-dead and kept alive in hopes of donating his organs. Jordan was in a coma. Neither of them was in DOC custody when they died.

The ACLU said it learned of these deaths from the inmate’s families. When asked for comment, the Department of Corrections would neither confirm nor deny the inmate deaths the ACLU says went unreported.

In a statement, the department said it only reports those deaths that are within its “institutional” custody. DOC said that when the state court system releases inmates, it’s no longer DOC’s responsibility to track them, nor does it have access to their information once they’re out of the department’s custody.

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Angelena McCord, 29, died on Oct. 10 after she was jailed for shoplifting at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. McCord was originally from Tyonek where she helped her family with subsistence and commercial fishing. (Courtesy Angel Standifer)

Angelena McCord was the third inmate death that the ACLU says went unreported this year. She died at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center last month, at the age of 29. The DOC has only reported inmate eight deaths for 2023, but the ACLU says McCord was the 11th inmate to die.

McCord’s mother, Angel Standifer, said DOC should be required to report all inmate deaths, whether they happen in prison or at the hospital.

“I think it’s wrong,” Standifer said.    

Standifer wants a complete accounting of the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death, so she and her family can move on.    

“It is really painful,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t get up. Some days I don’t want to get up.”  

Standifer said her daughter had her struggles but seemed to be turning around. Her nickname was Lena, a young woman who loved basketball and volleyball. Her mother said she also coached Native Youth Olympics in her home village of Tyonek, where she had worked as a Head Start teacher and helped her dad with commercial fishing.

“Her dad would always say she was his first son, and she would always go out moose hunting and help us butcher the moose,” she said. “And she always helped her family, no matter what.”

Barker recounted the events leading up to McCord’s death.

“She had been in custody for only a few days for a single shoplifting charge,” Barker said. “Her family reported that she had a seizure. She was transported by DOC to the hospital ended up in a coma. While she was in that coma, the state cleared her charge and released her, and her family took her off life support October 10th.”

The ACLU says had it not been for Angelena McCord’s family, it would not have found out about her death.

Megan Edge, who oversees the ACLU’s Alaska Prison Project, said the ACLU acknowledges that inmates have not led perfect lives, but that the lack of acknowledgement about their deaths is disturbing. 

“It’s just a refusal to acknowledge that the people who are dying are people,” Edge said.

The ACLU said in order to reduce the death toll, it’s important to know the full picture — which should include the location of inmate deaths and the 11th-hour custody changes. Because otherwise, according to the group, there is no way to no know exactly many inmates have died, a problem the ACLU says could be far worse than we realize.

As for the ACLU’s allegations, DOC says that while it appreciates the public’s concern, “DOC takes all matters regarding the welfare of those in our care seriously and cannot comment on allegations from outside sources.”

The department has said the high prison death rate is caused in part by an aging prison population, as well as the increasingly poor health of those who enter the system due to poverty and addiction. It also has said privacy laws prevent it from releasing details about these deaths.

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