FAIRBANKS—The Alaska prison system is in turmoil, according to Gov. Bill Walker, who on Monday released a report critical of the system's handling of deaths and suicides behind bars in recent years.
The review was initiated after a handful of high-profile prisoner suicides and deaths during the last few years and looks at the problems throughout the system. The cases reviewed include a man's death at the Fairbanks Correctional Center in August.
In the same announcement Monday, Walker said he accepted the resignation of Department of Corrections Commissioner Ron Taylor and brought in Walt Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief and former commissioner of Public Safety, as a temporary replacement.
"One thing that became clear from the administrative review is the system is broken in many ways and needs new leadership," Walker said at a news conference in Anchorage.
Taylor was named commissioner in January. He had been with the department for seven years, including three years as deputy commissioner in charge of probation and parole.
The system's failings in four deaths and three suicides are detailed in timelines and descriptions in the report. The team reviewed a total of 22 case files on inmate deaths.
It noted excessive use of force, a disregard for the well-being of prisoners, gaps in investigations and a lack of discipline for officer misconduct.
The investigation of 57-year-old Gilbert Joseph at Fairbanks Correctional Center was criticized for "significant discrepancies, omissions and inaccuracies."
The report was critical of the Department of Corrections' investigations into deaths. It found investigations were often done by untrained or inexperienced investigators with insufficient resources. The outcomes of those investigations, the report found, often didn't result in discipline for officers.
Dean Williams, a special assistant to the governor and one of the authors of the report, said the poor in-house investigations have eroded trust in the system.
“I think the department has a hard time investigating itself like many agencies do, so out of our report we’re recommending a separate arm with existing resources,” he said. “We look at a process or model where we can investigate ourselves with high credibility and high trust. Right now we have a broken system.”
The report also found the Department of Law was closely involved in the investigations and often pushed to protect the state against liability.
"For example, according to interviewees, (the Department of) Law expressed concerns that documenting all the facts around an inmate death might make it easier for the state to be found financially liable for the death," the report said.
The report said the state has a "valid interest in avoiding unnecessary litigation and loss," but countered that the best way to do that "is to avoid the mistakes that create such liabilities."
Other broken parts of the prison system included the overuse of solitary confinement, particularly its use on minors, according to the report.
It referenced a case where four minors were put in solitary confinement for about 11 months, during which they received no educational services and their "out-of-cell time constituted time in the hallway with a rare visit outside the building in a cage-type area."
It said such use of solitary confinement can be damaging to the prisoner, noting that it can "hinder positive social and psychological development" and lead to prisoners committing more crimes.
It also found shortcomings when dealing with suicidal inmates, including failing to put inmates on suicide watch or slow responses to suicide attempts.
"A fundamental reset is needed to establish a system-wide expectation of zero suicides," the report suggested. "There have been no suicides in the state’s juvenile justice facilities in 20 years. This is not an accident; it’s the result of a conscious prioritization and corresponding policy changes following a string of suicides in juvenile facilities in the 1980s."
When asked for his thoughts on the report, Walker said he "found it very troubling."
There are recommendations in the report as well, including better and more standardized training for correctional officers, an improved third-party investigation of administrative and criminal issues and addressing labor issues.
At the news conference Monegan said the report will serve as a roadmap to fixing the prison system.
"I will take it as the first step and use it as a guide of what needs to be addressed," he said.
Both Monegan and Walker declined to point blame at previous heads of the corrections system.
"It is broke but I don't think it's to the point where we want to lay blame," Monegan said. "But what we can do is learn what needs to be fixed and move forward."
The report comes at the same time the Alaska Legislature and the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission are exploring an overhaul of the entire criminal justice system from sentencing to prison and reentry.
The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission is expected to produce a report on ways to reduce the prison population to the Legislature by Dec. 10.
One of the leaders on the effort is North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, who authored a key piece of reform legislation passed in 2013. He said he had a good relationship with Taylor, but said he supports the governor in bringing in new leadership.
"The thing that is good about it is there will be new leadership looking for new directions in a time where we need to do reform and a time that we can't afford a lot of new programs," he said. "Walt is a well-respected man and I hope that he can cut through the bureaucracy."
Coghill said he plans to work closely with the Department of Corrections to ensure recommendations in the report fit well with the efforts to look at the whole system, which is shifting focus away from harsh penalties to proven methods of rehabilitating offenders.
He said that effort will stretch far beyond just the Department of Corrections, but will also touch the courts and Department of Law.
"There are going to be different practice needed," he said."The courts are going to need some direction by law. That's part of the problem, is that it's just a Department of Corrections problem."
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.