Report finds Anchorage correctional officers pepper sprayed inmates, used excessive force

Published: Jan. 10, 2022 at 10:01 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2022 at 2:42 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Ombudsman released findings on Monday from an investigation into an excessive force complaint against the Alaska Department of Corrections from November 2017, and the report concludes that state correctional officers based in Anchorage used excessive force against three prisoners when they sprayed them with pepper spray and then left them inside a van.

The release from the ombudsman on Monday said they received a complaint from an inmate alleging officers sprayed him and two others with pepper spray while they were in a transport van at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. The inmate’s complaint further alleges he and two others were locked in a van for 10 to 15 minutes after being sprayed with no opportunity to wash off the pepper spray, shower or change clothes.

According to the report’s findings, the correctional officers did in fact use excessive force “contrary to law” by pepper spraying the three inmates in the transport van “and leaving the inmates in the van for several minutes without proper ventilation.”

“There was no evidence that any of the three inmates engaged in any conduct justifying the use of (the spray) or other force while in the van,” the report reads.

The officers also did not allow them to properly decontaminate following their exposure to the spray, the report found. A review of security footage showed that one inmate was able to shower following the incident, but two others were not provided with water, soap, towels or clean clothes.

The complaint was reportedly investigated by the department’s professional conduct unit, but its findings were never shared with the inmates. The ombudsman’s report found that the officers did not follow the Department of Corrections’ policy when it comes to use of force, which is supposed to be disclosed to a supervisor and to the human resources department.

“None of the officers present during this incident intervened to protect the inmates’ civil and legal rights,” the report reads.

The report also found that the department’s misconduct investigation into the incident failed to hold the officers accountable.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Betsy Holley did not respond to requests for comment from Alaska’s News Source on Monday but did respond through email on Tuesday. When asked if the correctional officers were held accountable, and how many employees were involved in the incident, Holley wrote that the department could not answer because of personnel issues that are confidential in nature.

“In this case, the preponderance of evidence did show the officer engaged in excessive use of force and did not provide the inmates with an opportunity to decontaminate, to clean up after,” Alaska Ombudsman Kate Burkhart said. “We did find the complaint justified and made recommendations to resolve it.”

The report outlines a number of recommendations for the Department of Corrections, including having a single, uniform policy for use of force that applies to all facilities in the same way. Another recommendation is for the use of pepper spray and other chemicals to be expressly addressed in that use of force policy, and another is that the department should create a policy outlining the steps to be taken by medical staff after an inmate has been exposed to a chemical like pepper spray.

The ombudsman report says the Department of Corrections is still in the process of revising its use of force policy. Burkhardt met with the department in 2018 and 2019, at which point the agency said the policy was being revised.

“The agency had indicated that they wanted to update their policy,” Burkhart said. “We want to support agencies to resolve complaints. And so, we wanted the agency to do that. It’s been a while and the policy is in progress, but it hasn’t been updated yet, so that’s why we have shared this report.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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