3 Alaska prison inmates die in 2024’s opening weeks

Two people walk through a prison.
Goose Creek Correctional Center on Nov. 1, 2011. (Ellen Lockyer/Alaska Public Media)

Three Southcentral Alaska inmates have died in state custody during the first half of January, just weeks into the year following 2023’s statewide total of 10 inmate deaths.

The Alaska Department of Corrections reported that Goose Creek Correctional Center inmate John Malcolm Groff, 82, and Anchorage Correctional Complex inmate Joshua Keith Zimmerman, 33, both died Friday night. Spring Creek Correctional Center inmate Daniel Eugene Rosendahl, 37, died Monday afternoon.

Groff had been held since July of 2008. The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reported he was serving a 45-year sentence for sexually abusing three young girls. According to the department, his death had been expected by medical personnel.

Zimmerman and Rosendahl had yet to be sentenced, Corrections officials said in statements on their deaths. Zimmerman had been held since Dec. 12 on charges including assault, robbery and theft, while Rosendahl had been held since January 2023 on drunken driving and burglary charges.

Corrections spokesperson Betsy Holley declined Wednesday to answer detailed questions about any of the three deaths or officers’ responses to them. She cited the department’s duties as a medical provider to protect patient privacy, under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Holley called the sudden spate of inmate deaths early in the year “very unfortunate,” but emphasized that trends in the larger community are mirrored among the state’s inmates.

“We deal with a medically fragile population, many of whom enter our facilities with preexisting, and in some cases, very complicated medical, mental health and substance use related issues,” Holley said in an email. “Unfortunately, we are unable to reverse damage due to long-term abuse or lack of access to adequate healthcare.”

Holley said the department conducts reviews after inmate deaths to identify areas of improvement to help maintain inmate safety.

“Not only does the department look at internal processes, we look at national standards, trends and services for possible opportunities to assist individuals throughout their incarceration,” Holley said.

Staff with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which has been tracking Alaska prison deaths since a spike of 18 recorded in 2022, called Wednesday for “legislative oversight” of the department in the wake of this month’s toll. They also questioned last year’s official toll, which the ACLU places at 13, based on deaths that resulted from medical emergencies in DOC custody.

Megan Edge, director of the group’s Alaska Prison Project, said Wednesday that the ACLU will independently investigate all three deaths.

“The ACLU of Alaska is very concerned about our prisons. They’re dangerous and deadly,” Edge said. “And we’ve seen that trend for the last two years. And it’s frustrating, because there are powerful people — the governor’s office, the Department of Corrections and the Legislature — who seem to not be taking the action necessary to save the lives of Alaskans.”

Edge also noted that Zimmerman’s and Rosendahl’s ages were consistent with other Alaska inmates who have died in recent years.

“It’s a lot of very young people, people who are not in custody for very long, people who are still pretrial, and DOC gives almost zero answers as to why people are dying,” she said.

As a former Corrections spokesperson herself under former Gov. Bill Walker, current Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s immediate predecessor, Edge said that the department can still release extensive information about inmate deaths without violating patient privacy laws.

“All of those questions – how long was somebody dead in their cell before a corrections officer found them or another incarcerated person? Those are not questions that are protected by HIPAA,” Edge said. “And DOC needs to stop using HIPAA as a way to get out of having to answer tough questions.”

Edge said that during her tenure at DOC, the department was under deep scrutiny after a then-record 15 inmate deaths were reported in 2015. The Walker administration responded by calling for a formal review, then forming a Professional Conduct Unit to investigate inmate deaths and inform families of its findings, at what Edge said was a cost of about $1 million a year.

Soon after Dunleavy took office in 2018, he disbanded the unit amid concerns about its cost. Since then, Edge said, a single Alaska State Trooper has been assigned to investigate all in-custody inmate deaths statewide.

“A million dollars a year was too much money, which is laughable when you consider that, I think, last year DOC’s budget was about $420 million, most of that going into overtime for correctional officers because our prisons are so overcrowded,” Edge said. “And so, the climate was very different.”

Edge said the ACLU of Alaska has an open lawsuit against the department over the 2022 death by suicide of inmate James Rider.

“When somebody goes into Department of Corrections custody, it is the responsibility of the state to make sure that they are safe and well cared for,” she said. “And clearly they’re not doing their job because it’s not even the end of the month and three people are dead. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said John Groff and Joshua Zimmerman died the night of Thursday, Jan. 11. They both died Friday, Jan. 12.

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cklint@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Chris here.

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