On Saturday, October 21, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) introduced and passed Resolution 23-07, calling for an independent federal investigation into the disproportionate prison deaths of Alaska Native people in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody.
“We thank AFN for its work to address this tragic issue, which Alaska Native families unfortunately know far too well,” said Megan Edge, Prison Project Director for the ACLU of Alaska. “The deaths that have occurred in Alaska’s jails and prisons are preventable and disproportionately impact Alaska Native people. The impacts ripple through communities and perpetuate cycles of harm. We stand in solidarity with AFN’s call for an independent investigation of DOC’s practices.”
The resolution comes a week after the death of Angelena McCord, 29, of Tyonek, who suffered a seizure in DOC custody at Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility. She had been in custody for five days following a shoplifting charge and was taken to Alaska Regional Hospital; the state dropped the charge and released her while she was in the hospital. She was taken off life support on October 10. DOC is not reporting her death.
Alaska Native people comprise 22% of the state population yet account for 41.22% of Alaska’s incarcerated population. In 2022, a record number of eighteen people died in DOC custody, half of whom were Alaska Native (eight of nine from villages and seven by suicide).
The resolution calls for the following:
An independent investigation by a neutral entity to ensure objectivity and avoid any possible conflicts of interest.
A thorough accounting of all deaths in custody, including causes of death, how each person’s health was assessed, conditions and circumstances of their confinement, and availability and delivery of healthcare prior to death.
Identification of how these deaths in custody could have been prevented through both individual actions and systemic changes. The investigation should identify whether language barriers or staff misconduct played a part in any of these deaths in custody.
Identification of whether any of the people who died were eligible for, or had applied for, compassionate release or special medical parole and whether they were in pre-trial, remand, or sentenced status.
A public report by investigators to ensure transparency and accountability so community members can work with state leaders to solve issues that contribute to deaths in custody.
In September, the ACLU of Alaska filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of James Rider, one of the 18 people who died in DOC custody in 2022. In addition to damages, the organization requested an independent federal investigation into DOC’s practices and the circumstances surrounding the deaths that have occurred in DOC custody.