From [HERE] Inmates at a state prison in Alaska were stripped naked in front of female prison staff members, walked naked on a “dog leash” and left without clothing or cover in cold, filthy cells for hours at a time, according to a report released by a state watchdog.
The report, released online last week and referring to events from a 10-day period in August 2013, provided a look at how correctional officers at the maximum-security Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward subjected prisoners to sexual embarrassment and harassment, as well as situations of extreme discomfort, seemingly as punishment for two incidents that had taken place earlier in the month.
The report, prompted by a complaint filed by an inmate, found that he and 11 other prisoners had been taken from their cells for reasons that were never officially explained, moved to a different location, unshackled and “ordered to strip naked in front of female staff.”
The complaint said the group was handcuffed again and walked nude on a “dog leash,” which the report identified as a cuff retainer, to another area of the prison while correctional officers ridiculed and laughed at them.
The inmate who filed the complaint said he was then placed naked in a cell that was filled with debris and feces, and had blood on the walls, and was left there for hours.
The report was completed and released by the office of the Alaska ombudsman, Kate Burkhart. The ombudsman’s office found that the complainant’s allegations were justified — meaning that the investigation established that they had occurred — and that the prison staff had violated federal and state laws in its treatment of the inmates.
“The allegations are so shocking that they are almost unbelievable,” Ms. Burkhart said in an interview Wednesday.
She said she had been startled by the egregiousness of the alleged violations upon reading the report this summer, when she was named ombudsman. “Proving that they occurred required that level of real in-depth investigation and thoroughness,” she added, when asked why the report took four years to be released.
The ombudsman’s office found that several other inmates had filed similar complaints. At least one said he had been left naked in a cell for 12 or more hours. Another reported that the cells were “probably 50 degrees at most” and that correctional officers were told they would be fired if they provided the inmates with clothing.
The initial inmate filed a grievance with the state Department of Corrections in August 2013. According to the inmate, the department assigned the same staff member who had supervised the punishments to investigate the complaint. That staff member, a lieutenant at the prison, also investigated the others’ grievances. (Names of inmates and prison staff members were redacted throughout the report.)
The lieutenant completed his investigation in October 2013. His report said that the inmate had been involved in a group protest on the evening of Aug. 5 and that he and the others were restrained and stripped, partly to “alleviate the security threat” posed by the prisoners’ misuse of their state-issued clothing.
The assistant superintendent of the prison upheld the lieutenant’s findings and rejected the inmates’ complaints, then subsequently denied their appeals.
When asked to explain how the inmates had “misused” state clothing, the assistant superintendent said that inmates had used it during the protest to yank plumbing fixtures from the wall.
He was unable to articulate how the inmate was intending to misuse his clothing again, the report said. No other written accounts of the episode, including the lieutenant’s, alluded to inmates misusing clothing.
Ombudsmen — government watchdogs established by state legislatures in Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona — have no punitive power, so the report’s findings do not carry the weight of law.
It made a series of sweeping recommendations, including that the Department of Corrections revise its policies on restraint devices such as handcuffs and those on strip and body cavity searches.
The report also recommended that the department begin recording staff interactions with body cameras, which Ms. Burkhart argued would protect inmates and prison staff alike.
The department declined to put in place several of the policies, the report found. Phone calls to the commissioner’s office Wednesday went unanswered.
Alaska’s corrections department has undergone several changes in leadership since 2013. A report released by the governor’s office in 2015, prompted by the deaths of seven prisoners, found that the department was in turmoil, with organizational failings, varied implementations of severe punishments and flaws in its internal investigation process. The next year, one of that report’s authors was chosen to lead the department, to the dismay of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association.
Ms. Burkhart said that given the time that had passed, many of the correctional officers involved in the episode were no longer working at the prison and that its administration had changed. Nonetheless, she said, the public “should be alarmed that this happened.”
She was not required to release the report publicly, but said she did so because the egregious behavior detailed in it deserved notice from public officials.
“The ombudsman doesn’t have enforcement power, but the governor and the legislature certainly do,” Ms. Burkhart said. “If there’s evidence that a state agency isn’t following the law, then putting the governor and the legislature on notice that it’s happening, so that they can react and hopefully resolve the problem, is important.”