A tragedy is unfolding in Alaska’s prisons. Our leaders must act quickly to stop it.

Alaska does not have the death penalty, but for 16 people incarcerated in state jails and prisons, incarceration became a death sentence this year.

This op-ed originally ran in the Anchorage Daily News on October 28, 2022.

Alaska does not have the death penalty, but for 16 people incarcerated in state jails and prisons, incarceration became a death sentence this year. While the details of their lives and deaths are still being uncovered, I’m profoundly troubled because I am haunted by our history.

I began working for the Department of Corrections in 2017, on the heels of the high-profile death of Kellsie Green and an independent review ordered by then-Gov. Bill Walker.

The findings of the review were considered to be a “snapshot in time,” and in its public reveal, the review painted a grim picture of a powerful agency, with the authority to influence and determine the freedom status of thousands of people. Non-incarcerated Alaskans were finally able to see how the mega-agency, entitled to operate in secrecy, and with a seemingly ever-growing budget, treated the people in its care.

We learned about out-of-date policies, and the over-use and trauma of solitary confinement. We learned that there were often insufficient investigations of — and little consequences for staff involved in — serious incidents, and distrust among staff and their leaders. Then there were problems with Title 47s, people incarcerated on non-criminal holds.

In my work now with the ACLU of Alaska Prison Project, I consider the findings of this report often — and not just the jaw-dropping facts in its pages. The details describing how and why people die in the Alaska prison system have followed me.

I see the faces of Davon Mosely, Larry Kobuk and Green in each new press release from DOC announcing yet another death of an incarcerated person. In each release, DOC makes a small note: “No foul play suspected.”

All that means is that the person was not killed by another incarcerated person. Such a simple statement is empty, though. As records show, it’s far more likely a person dies because of factors related to the system, and its failures, than at the hands of another jailed person.

Kobuk, whose death was detailed in the report, died in booking after reporting a heart condition and failing to remove his sweatshirt. A video showed him dying face down with four correctional officers on his back cutting off his clothing while a nurse and two Anchorage police officers watched.

Mosely, also in the report, was booked on an outstanding warrant from another state. He had a history of complicated mental health issues and was placed in solitary confinement. He was often naked, went days without a shower, was pepper sprayed in his cell, and had food thrown at him. When California correctional officers came to transport him, they refused to take him because of his poor condition. The Anchorage district attorney’s office filed paperwork to dismiss the charges, but the paperwork was never processed. So instead of walking out of jail, his segregation cell became his tomb. Mosely died of a bleeding ulcer and medical neglect.

Green died shortly after the review. She was 80 pounds, detoxing from a substance misuse, alone in a cell, and begging for help. I’ll never forget the grainy video footage of her thin, young body, frozen in time, arms extended — her last plea for help.

While the details of these deaths are tragic and unpleasant to digest, another chilling truth is that we only know what went wrong because of the independent and transparent investigation into DOC and the courageous public fight for answers from Kellsie Green’s father, John Green.

With the information we’ve been able to collect so far, it appears that history is repeating itself.

People are dying in jail cells at an alarming rate. With 16 so far this year, we have surpassed the 2015 death record, making this the deadliest year in Alaska’s prisons in the past decade.

Many were young, some were aging and/or ailing. Ten people have died since Aug. 4. Several were in custody for misdemeanor charges, unable to pay bail, others were near the end of life and were eligible for medical parole and compassionate release.

Four of the last five people who died were still innocent in the eyes of the court and had not yet been convicted of a crime.

The youngest person to die this year was Kitty Douglas. She was 20 years old, from White Mountain. Reports say she was experiencing homelessness in Anchorage and had a history of mental health issues. There’s no public record that even indicates why she was booked, or how she ended up at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, but in questions to DOC they said she was being held on a misdemeanor criminal mischief charge.

Families of those who died are searching for answers but getting the runaround from state agencies.

Woven into each story are devastating truths about substance misuse, mental health, excessive sentences, an overburdened prison system, failing policies, lack of resources, poverty, racism and a callous disregard for the treatment of detained people in our state institutions.

I understand the hard truth of life and of prisons. People die. The only certainty we have coming into this world is that one day we’ll leave it.

And I know this, the tragedy we’re witnessing in Alaska’s jails and prisons isn’t solely the fault of corrections. These deaths are the result of massive systemic problems, breakdowns in our social structures and the failure of government to meet the needs of its people.

I know this too, though: Even one is too many.

The state brings people through the doors of our jails with complicated mental, physical and behavioral health issues. Even DOC says this.

But the medical screening process leaves much to be desired, and failed people like Green and Kobuk. Facilities are notoriously understaffed — a growing issue as the prison population continues to rise — and even if staffing numbers were higher, prisons and jails are not designed to be hospitals.

Gov. Dunleavy and the Department of Corrections can help stop this crisis. The first step? Ordering a sweeping, independent review that publicly reports its findings. The ACLU of Alaska formally requested the review on Oct. 14. We’ve heard nothing back, outside of an empty statement to a member of the press that said they’d respond in due time. Instead, the the governor has made vague, hollow comments during public appearances, including at the candidate forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. There, he said that “For the most part, people will realize that most individuals passed away from either health issues or, unfortunately, suicides.” In none of it did the governor acknowledge even the possibility that the high number of deaths is unusual, or that systemic problems exist. Such lackluster statements and a failure to act demonstrates a lack of concern and urgency, as well as an unwillingness to take action to ensure that going to jail isn’t a death sentence. But the administration would be wise to look to our past for a lesson about why action and transparency are urgently needed.

This cannot wait — the lives of thousands of incarcerated people hang in the balance.

Megan Edge is a prison abolitionist, lifelong Alaskan, and ACLU of Alaska Prison Project director.