Laron Carlton Graham became the tenth person to die in the custody of Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) this year when he passed away on Sept. 22 – although DOC has neglected to report the deaths of two other men.
Graham was 45 years old and seemingly healthy when he was booked on a non-violent parole violation in June, his friends and family said. According to those who knew him, he had been expressing that he was feeling ill for some time but was unable to access medical care. He was eventually transported to a hospital, where he died. They said his family was not notified that he was hospitalized until he had been there for over two weeks.
In a press release by DOC, they reported that Graham died of natural causes.
Our hearts are with Graham’s family and the families of the 27 other people who have died in Alaska’s prisons in 2022 and 2023. As we have done for everyone else, the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project is now investigating - a process that includes finding witnesses, filing to preserve evidence, submitting records requests, and talking with loved ones.
Our hearts are with Grahm’s family and the families of the 27 others who died. As the ACLU of Alaska has learned in this process, the families of those who die in DOC custody are not allowed to grieve like those of us in the free world.
Families of those who die in DOC custody struggle to get basic answers surrounding the death. Multiple agencies are involved. DOC was responsible for the life of the deceased. Alaska State Troopers (AST) has investigative authority over jail and prison deaths. The Medical Examiner’s office is responsible for conducting the autopsy.
Families often struggle to get their loved one’s belongings, like wallets and jewelry they were booked with, or suicide letters and the photographs they kept in their cells. Sometimes, they fear speaking out because they reasonably fear retaliation.
If someone is transported to the hospital to die, families must make decisions about life support and say goodbye under the watchful eye of a correctional officer.
And if families knew something was wrong before their loved one died, they often call DOC officials, who frequently ignore the pleas for help.
We’ve been hearing these stories for over a year, but last month Mike Cox and Tom Abel shared them publicly on behalf of their family members who died while incarcerated.
Cox is the brother of James Rider, 31, who died last year by suicide at Mat-Su Pretrial Facility in Palmer. Abel is the grandfather of Mark Cook Jr., 27, who died earlier this year by suicide at Lemon Creek Correctional Facility in Juneau. The ACLU of Alaska, with co-counsel Friedman Rubin, is representing the family of Rider. Attorney Vance Sanders is representing the family of Cook.
In a moment that happened once the live stream of our press conference was over, Cox and Abel hugged as they promised to support each other as they fight for justice for their families and to prevent other families from suffering the same grief.
Only days after we announced these lawsuits, another death was reported by DOC. Tristan Andrews, 29, was booked at the Anchorage Correctional Complex (ACC) for two days before he was pronounced dead on Aug. 29. Andrew’s death follows a similar pattern as the other deaths reported over the last two years. Most were young Alaskans (under 40) who were pre-trial and had spent only a short time in DOC custody. Andrews’ cause of death is still unknown.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. Each of these deaths was preventable; none of them needed to die in a prison without being surrounded by the love of their people.
Alaska does not have the death penalty, but in 2022 and 2023, 28 people died by incarceration.
DOC has a legal and moral obligation to keep the nearly 5,000 people in its custody safe. Each death in prison is a failure to uphold this obligation. DOC must be held accountable to improve the conditions of confinement and medical conditions that result in many of these deaths.
We also need accountability after uncovering the questionable reporting practices of other deaths. The agency failed to count the deaths of Lewis Jordan Jr. and Jimmie Singree, who died in DOC custody because of the conditions they were forced to live in.
Both Singree and Jordan suffered medical emergencies in DOC custody, resulting in their eventual deaths in 2023. Both men were transported to the hospital – Jordan in a coma, Singree already brain dead -- in wrist and ankle shackles. Lewis’s head was covered with a spit hood.
While Singree’s body was kept alive in hopes of donating his organs, DOC “released” him from custody. DOC did not report his death because he had been “released” at the official time of death.
While Jordan lay in a coma in the hospital, he was somehow granted parole. He had been in jail for a parole violation – driving without a license – which would have made him ineligible for parole. He also would not have been capable of applying for parole while in a coma. Jordan’s death was not reported by DOC because he had been granted parole before his death.
We are now left questioning if the record 18 deaths in 2022 may have been higher.
An independent investigation of DOC deaths would help answer this question.
We will continue to push for oversight and accountability so that Alaskan families do not have to suffer the preventable losses of incarcerated loved ones.
In the meantime, we will keep the friends and families of -- Lawrence Lobdell, Luke Dennis, Kitty Douglas, Leefisher Tukrook, Jarvis Sours, James Wheeler, Austin Wilson, David Bristow, Natashia Minock, Robert Vann, Bernie Alexia, James Rider, Lewey Matoomealook, Marcus Gillion, William Hensley, Paul Harris, Khari Wade, Morris Teeluk, William Miller, Jay Stevens, Mark Cook Jr., Lewis Jordan, Jr., Jimmie Singree, Landon Morgan, Michael Padilla, James Kraus, Tristan Andrew, and Laron Grahm – in our thoughts and you should too.
Justice can’t occur here. Nothing will bring back the lives of those who died in DOC custody. But we can do everything in our power to ensure no other Alaskan families have to experience the trauma and suffering of losing a family member in prison. Learn more about the ACLU of Alaska’s Prison Project here.