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Watchdog faults Alaska prison system for violating inmate rights

Three examples show the failure of the department to follow due process

By Lisa Demer
Alaska Dispatch News

ANCHORAGE — Serious failures within the state Department of Corrections in three separate incidents involving inmate discipline raise questions about the ability of the department to treat inmates fairly and properly handle offenses, a state watchdog has found.

In one case, seven inmates accused of plotting a wild escape -- with supposed plans to kill a correctional officer, kidnap two female officers and bust through the perimeter fence on a prison tractor -- were found responsible in an administrative hearing based only on the word of another inmate who stood to benefit from being an informant, according to one of three investigative reports by the state ombudsman released Friday.

Read the ombudsman’s executive summary

In another, a federal inmate was held in solitary confinement at the Anchorage Correctional Complex for nearly two years but was never told why, the ombudsman report on that incident said.

The third case concerned an inmate written up twice for the same incident. A hearing officer dismissed one of the charges, but the Palmer Correctional Center superintendent reinstated it, the ombudsman said. The real problem, the report said, was the superintendent intervened “with no legal authority whatsoever” when the case was already over.

All three “are examples of the failure of the department to follow due process,” Linda Lord-Jenkins, the state ombudsman, said Friday.

The new reports come at a time of intense scrutiny for Alaska’s prison system. Gov. Bill Walker in August announced a review of prison policies and safety measures after a string of inmate deaths.

Inmates, like other citizens, have rights to basic due process protections. They are supposed to be able to question accusers and witnesses and be informed of the evidence against them, the ombudsman said.

Corrections Department officials on Friday were just reviewing the reports. Officials did not respond to requests for comment. But officials indicated to the ombudsman that reforms were underway.

The department “redesigned the disciplinary process, provided training to all of our hearing officers and reemphasized the importance of the disciplinary procedures and process throughout the chain of command from the division director to the facility hearing officers,” the agency said in its response to one of the investigations.

Officials didn’t respond to the ombudsman’s findings it had repeatedly violated state law and constitutional protections, other than to say inmates can always go to court, according to Lord-Jenkins.

“I am deeply disturbed by the Department’s unwillingness to even consider reviewing its conduct and to question whether it is performing its duties in accordance with the law and the minimum standards the public should be able to expect from its government,” Lord-Jenkins said in a written statement that accompanied the reports.

Early in May 2014, rumors were circulating around Palmer Correctional Center about a possible escape attempt, the report on that incident said. An inmate went to Sgt. Francis Buzby and initially named three inmates. The inmate was asked who else was involved and made a second report with the names of four additional inmates.

An eighth inmate who wasn’t named by the informant also got caught up in the escape investigation. Just as the escape reports were circulating, he reported he had lost his key to the prison John Deere loader, which he had permission to operate. After about 30 minutes, he found it in his jacket pocket. But the authorities were suspicious. The timing was terrible, considering the rumors about an escape being plotted with heavy equipment. He spent two weeks in segregation then made his case at a disciplinary hearing.

“Inmate 8 presented a detailed chronology of the events supported by credible witnesses, and his story checked out,” the ombudsman report said. The disciplinary board agreed his loss of the key was an accident.

The prison superintendent, Tomi Anderson, circulated a memo to all staff asking people to report any rumors or unusual activity. Three members of the kitchen staff came forward saying they had heard talk of an escape -- but two were only repeating what they heard from their supervisor.

The food service supervisor, Jerome Oates, reported he could hear inmates talking in the medication line, the law library, the recreation restroom, the computer lab and the kitchens for both the minimum security and medium security institutions in Palmer.

“These areas allow for me to hear what Inmates are talking about through the ventilation system or the non-insulated walls,” Oates said in a May 2014 memo to the superintendent. He said he had heard various inmates talk about other inmates who had a plot to kill a specific officer and take two young female officers hostage.

“While the staff was focused on that situation another Inmate who had a key for the loader was going to run it through the perimeter fence,” he wrote in the memo. He named one specific inmate who was talking about it – an inmate who was not among those who were accused and was not the informant.

But most of his information was vague.

“It is difficult to say that this bit of information rises above the level of being merely overheard gossip,” the ombudsman report says.

Buzby, the sergeant, investigated but couldn’t find anyone willing to back up the informant. He wrote almost identical generic incident reports for each of the seven inmates, accusing them of a prison infraction, attempted escape, and attributed the information to the informant. They all were put into solitary confinement.

The informant was no model inmate. He had been charged with three disciplinary infractions himself in the two months before reporting the escape plot, including lying and possession of contraband. More infractions would follow.

The ombudsman had to serve the department with a subpoena to get records of the proceedings, including the informant’s records. He told the ombudsman investigator that he hoped to get something out of reporting the plot, the ombudsman said. For various offenses in prison, he had been sentenced to spend 265 days in segregation as punishment but only served 20 days, the ombudsman said.

The alleged escape-plotting inmates were allowed to defend themselves at disciplinary hearings. Some denied they even knew the others, much less planned to bust out with them.

“Can you prove I know anybody besides –,” one asked.

The disciplinary board chair interrupted. “That, that’s irrelevant,” the chair said.

Another in the accused group was serving life for murder. He is over 70 and uses a walker, the ombudsman said.

The informant said that inmate had half a million dollars “in his account” and would be financing the group after the escape. The inmate had been in prison 44 years and only been disciplined twice, once for missing a prisoner count and once for failing to follow a written rule.

The ombudsman did not find any evidence of substantial wealth. The inmate said he initially thought the escape allegation was a joke.

At the hearing, he tried to find out who the informant was but couldn’t. The hearing lasted 11 minutes. He was sentenced to 30 days in solitary confinement. He lost his commissary privileges for 40 days. And he lost a year of “good time,” which effectively extended his sentence a full year.

Other accused inmates were in residential substance abuse treatment and some were mentors.

They all ended up in solitary confinement. Six of the seven lost a year of good time.

Ultimately, one inmate brought his appeal to court, and the department held a new hearing. The new hearing officer found the informant was not credible.

Then, after the ombudsman began investigating, the department reversed itself and dropped all of the disciplinary actions, according to the report. The good time was restored.

More needs to be done, the ombudsman said. She urged the department to apologize to the men.

“While the Department has reversed the disciplinary cases against the inmates, it cannot undo the months that they have spent in solitary confinement for something they did not do,” the report said.

That’s not going to happen, the department responded.

The ombudsman also urged that the department consider moving inmate disciplinary hearings to an outside agency.

“The Alaska Supreme Court has been critical of the way in which disciplinary hearings have been held for 40 years, and yet little appears to have changed,” the report said.

The department said it provided additional training to its hearing officers.

As to the other cases, the department did agree to reverse the disciplinary charges against a Palmer inmate accused in January 2014 of being disruptive and of disobeying a staff member, which was all the same incident. The inmate had already served 30 days in solitary confinement by then, the ombudsman said.

There may have been good reason to hold the federal inmate in solitary for nearly two years, Lord-Jenkins said, but the inmate had the right to be told why and to challenge the decision. The U.S. Marshals Service had asked for him to be segregated. The inmate, “while not in custody, has forcibly sodomized persons with foreign objects causing great bodily harm,” the marshal’s August 2013 report to the Anchorage Correctional Complex said. The individual also had talked about his desire “to sexually accost Native inmates” at the Anchorage jail, the ombudsman report said.

The individual was never told that was why he was in solitary, the ombudsman said.

“When you are not given information that is used against you, that is a basic violation of due process,” Lord-Jenkins said.

He since has been sentenced in federal court and now is in a federal institution.