Today, the ACLU of Alaska and the law firm of Friedman Rubin filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) on behalf of the family of James Rider, one of the 18 people who died while incarcerated in 2022. In addition, attorney Vance Sanders is filing a similar suit against DOC in the death of Yad Duu Quay Mark Cook, Jr. who died in DOC custody earlier this year.   

James Rider, 31, was incarcerated at Mat-Su Pretrial before dying by suicide on September 9, 2022. He had a history of complex substance misuse and mental health issues. During the 11 days he was incarcerated before his death, Rider’s family says he was “begging” for mental health help but did not receive it. He was a father of three. 

“James and I share a beautiful, brilliant 8-year-old son, who’ll now grow up without knowing his dad,” said Tamara Halliburton. “Even the simplest things, like watching a children’s movie, remind him of the loss of James, which causes him to re-live those feelings and emotions. Our family decided to be a part of this for James, our son, and to hopefully end the cycles of harm that have continued to bring forth the trauma associated with his loss."

In April, Mark Cook Jr., 27, had been remanded in Hoonah on misdemeanor charges while awaiting back surgery. He was transported to Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau so he could receive medical care for his severe back pain. Instead, he was placed in solitary confinement and, like James Rider, ultimately died by suicide on April 23, 2023. Cook was Tlingit and adopted into the Haida nation. His Haida name was Guud Giwi, Baby Eagle, Stastass clan. 

“My grandson got a death sentence for a misdemeanor. His bail was $7,500,” said Tom Abel, Cook’s grandfather. “He was in solitary confinement, suffering from severe debilitating back pain when he died. He was alone. Alaska Native people make up the largest percentage of incarcerated people in our state, my grandson was one of them.  Something has to change. Something is wrong with this system.” 

In 2022, a record number of Alaskans died while in custody. These lawsuits are the result of the ACLU of Alaska Prison Project’s investigation into deaths in DOC custody. 

“Alaska does not have the death penalty, but 18 people died in Alaska’s prisons last year and we have seen eight so far this year. For these Alaskans, incarceration is a death sentence,” said ACLU of Alaska Prison Project Director Megan Edge. “We are asking for an independent review of deaths in DOC custody. Then we can begin to make changes that keep people in DOC custody safer and reduce the number of tragedies reverberating from our prisons into our communities.” 

Press conference video