2 more Alaska inmates die as details emerge on early-morning Anchorage jail death

A concrete sign with the words "Anchorage Correctional Complex_
The Anchorage Correctional Complex in 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

No force was used at the Anchorage jail against a man who died there last Wednesday, according to state corrections officials.

As his death remained under investigation Tuesday, officials also announced two more Southcentral Alaska inmates suffered medical issues and died last week. That brings the state’s total number of in-state custody deaths to 10, the same number as all of last year, prompting continued calls from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska for answers and action.

“From our end, we have absolutely a ton of questions,” said Megan Edge, director of the group’s Alaska Prison Project. 

The Anchorage Police Department released a few additional details Tuesday about the man who died early Wednesday at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Police identified him as 38-year-old Ross Greenley, saying he was initially arrested as a vandalism suspect near the Alaska Backpackers Inn downtown shortly after 3:30 a.m.

Police spokeswoman Renee Oistad said Greenley was taken into custody “without incident” on Eagle Street. Whether police used any force against Greenley or whether he showed any medical issues at that time, she said, both remain under investigation.

“He was evaluated by the (Alaska Department of Corrections) nurse upon arrival at the jail,” Oistad said in an email.

DOC spokeswoman Betsy Holley said that Greenley was still in police custody when he entered the jail at about 4:15 a.m. Wednesday. Nobody at the facility used force against him, she said.

“And again, APD still had him in custody,” Holley said. “So anything that occurred between Mr. Greenley and APD, I’m not aware of that.”

Police said in a statement that Greenley suffered “medical distress” as he entered the Anchorage jail’s booking area.

Holley said that Greenley had yet to be formally booked when staff rushed to help him. She declined to discuss his symptoms, saying that information couldn’t be disclosed because of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“Within about five minutes, it was obvious he was in distress, to which our onsite medical personnel responded at the behest of APD,” Holley said in an email.

Anchorage Fire Department medics took over from DOC staff about 10 minutes afterward, Holley said. Oistad said life-saving measures were performed for more than 30 minutes before Greenley was declared dead. Police also said in a prior statement that the overdose-reversing drug Narcan was administered.

Holley said Tuesday that neither Greenley nor Alaska serial killer Joshua Wade, who died June 14 at an Indiana prison, are being counted by DOC as in-custody deaths. 

But on Tuesday, the department announced the deaths of two other men – Anchorage jail inmate Benjamin Davis, 76, who died about an hour after Greenley, and Goose Creek Correctional Center inmate Steven Woodman, 63, who died Friday. Both deaths were expected by medical personnel, according to Holley.

Davis and Woodman, Holley said, bring Alaska’s in-custody death toll this year to 10, matching the state’s total for all of 2023. A record 18 people died in DOC custody in 2022.

DOC’s handling and reporting of inmate deaths is being independently investigated by the ACLU of Alaska. Edge, with the organization, said the latest deaths underscore the need for transparency from the department and its commissioner, Jen Winkelman.

“During the last legislative session, Commissioner Winkelman made a lot of statements to the Legislature about taking all of these deaths seriously,” Edge said. “These people did not die for no reason. They might not have died at the hands of another person, but we don’t know that.”

Edge emphasized that she did not want to immediately assign blame for Greenley’s death, noting that many details of Wednesday’s arrest are still not available to the public. She listed some of her questions that remain unanswered.

“What was this person’s housing situation before they were incarcerated?” she said. “What was the charge that he was actually being remanded on? How many officers from both Anchorage police and DOC were in the room when he started experiencing this medical emergency? We have none of that information.”

To Edge, Greenley’s death highlights the interplay among many of Anchorage’s public-safety and mental-health concerns — as well as a tendency to address them through policing and incarceration.

“What it really shows me is that all of these issues are so closely connected,” Edge said. “We have seen police violence. We’ve seen issues with (Anchorage police officers’ body cameras). We’ve seen violence in homeless camps and a lack of resources for people who are not housed right now. We’re seeing deaths in custody.

Edge — a former DOC spokeswoman under Bill Walker, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s predecessor — also raised questions about the department using HIPAA as a shield against questions about inmate deaths.

“HIPAA does not apply to dead people the same way that it applies to somebody who is still alive,” she said.

But Holley said HIPAA does in fact protect the privacy of patients’ health information for 50 years following their deaths. She said she is continuing to work with the state Department of Law for greater clarity on what DOC can release about the circumstances of inmates’ deaths.

“I know it’s an issue and we want to be as transparent as we possibly can without violating anything,” Holley said.

The new information on Greenley’s death comes as APD’s former deputy chief, Sean Case, takes over the force under newly inaugurated Mayor Suzanne LaFrance. In a recent interview, Case said he hoped to improve the department’s transparency on major incidents.

Edge expressed cautious optimism that communications with police will get better under Case — who cited his contacts with community organizations including the ACLU of Alaska — as the group tries to understand what happened after Greenley’s arrest.

“There’s a responsibility in there somewhere,” Edge said. “Somewhere along the line, something did not happen that probably should have happened to save this person’s life.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from the state Department of Corrections.

a portrait of a man outside

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

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