Civil rights group wants independent probe into the record number of deaths in Alaska prisons

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A civil rights group is asking the state court system to order an independent investigation into the Alaska Department of Corrections after a record number of deaths were reported last year.

The request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska came Thursday when it announced separate lawsuits against the state Department of Corrections on behalf of two men who died by suicide while in prison in the last year, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The lawsuits, filed jointly by the organization and private attorneys on behalf of family members of the two men, seeks financial settlements and the outside investigation.

“There must be greater accountability and transparency on behalf of the Department of Corrections to prevent these tragedies from occurring,” Ruth Botstein, the ACLU of Alaska’s legal director, said at a news conference.

Neither the the Alaska Department of Corrections nor the attorney general's office had been served with the lawsuits by Friday and could not immediately comment, officials said in emails to The Associated Press.

According to statistics from the department, 18 inmates died under the department’s control in 2022, seven of those by suicide. The previous high was 16 deaths, two by suicide, in 2002.

One lawsuit was filed on behalf of family members of James Rider. It alleges he was placed in a cell alone at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility in Palmer, despite being a “known suicide risk.” He died by suicide last September, 11 days after being jailed.

The other lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Mark Cook Jr., who was held for weeks on a disorderly conduct charge at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau because his family couldn’t afford bail.

The lawsuit alleges Cook had debilitating back pain from an injury, and it worsened to the point he could not get up from the floor of his cell. The lawsuit alleges he covered the camera in his cell and died by suicide in April.

Family members said both men were in solitary confinement when they died.