Alaska’s Department of Corrections commissioner told legislators this week that the state's 18 in-custody deaths in 2022 were too high. “That is too many. I absolutely know that,” Jen Winkelman said while giving an overview to the House Judiciary Committee. “They are somebody’s brother, they are somebody’s sister, they are somebody’s family member.” Corrections ended 2022 with a decade-high number of deaths. All but one of the 18 deaths took place while Winkelman was leading the department. Last October, she said the deaths were not unusual, reports News From The States. At the time, 15 people had died in corrections custody. “While it’s unfortunate to have any death, it is not unusual and it is not a reflection on our staff’s ability to care,” she said. She called those in custody “a very sick population.” “Stats have shown that over 50 percent have some sort of a chronic medical condition beyond a common cold or COVID or something like that, so they come to us beyond that point of prevention,” she said. Of the 18 in-custody deaths in 2022, seven were a result of suicide and 11 were “natural,” attributed to various diseases. Displaying the cause of in-custody deaths is new to the website.
Of the 18 deaths in 2022, eight were sentenced prisoners and 10 were unsentenced, Winkelman told the committee. She also said about half of the 11 natural deaths were receiving end-of-life care. Website information on in-custody deaths goes as far back as 2015, when 15 people died in state corrections custody, the previous decade-high number before 2022. That year, three deaths were a result of suicide, one from homicide and 11 of natural causes. The next highest number of deaths by suicide before last year was five in 2020. The rest of the 14 total deaths that year were from natural causes. To reduce the number of suicides in custody, Winkelman said her department is working with Project 2025, a nationwide initiative by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to reduce the annual rate of suicide in the U.S. 20 percent by 2025. The agency is “working to develop and work with them and their resources. Are we assessing folks correctly and accurately when they come in?” Winkelman told the committee.