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Alaska Prisoner Deaths Criticized in Report

The deaths of four Alaska prisoners has placed a focus on that state’s prison system.  The handling of the deaths and a lack of training was criticized in a report that preceded the replacement of corrections commissioner.

Gov. Bill Walker called the report’s findings “disturbing.”  At the press conference where he made that pronouncement, he also announced the firing of the second corrections commissioner and appointed Dean Williams, a Walker aide who led the three month review into the deaths, as the new commissioner.

That report found the threat posed by Larry Kobuk, 33, at the Anchorage jail on January 27, 2015, did not appear to “warrant the level of force used.”  Kobuk told nurses upon booking that he suffered from a heart condition.

In a video, Kobuk is heard swearing at guards in the booking area and repeatedly saying, “kill the cops.”  When he refused to remove two sweatshirts, guards restrained him and tried to cut them off with scissors.  Kobuk can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” and guards reported he made that statement.  At the conclusion, guards found Kobuk was not breathing and delayed efforts to revive him.

Then, there was the August 14, 2015, death of Joseph Murphy, who was jailed on a “protective custody” hold because he was drunk.  Murphy, 49, appeared sober enough to be released at 5 a.m.  Guards, however, considered the 12-hour hold allowed to be a minimum rather than a maximum.  That erroneous interpretation meant he had to be held until 6 a.m.  Around that time, Murphy began to yell and bang on his cell door to complain of chest pains.

Murphy was told he would be released in an hour and someone would “gladly call: emergency services if he needed them then.  He did not make it that long, as at 6:19 a.m. Murphy collapsed on the floor and stiffened.  A guard delivering breakfast trays discovered him; Murphy died of a heart attack.

The April 20, 2014, death of prisoner Davon Mosley, 20, was due to an “apparent disregard” for his condition.  Mosely suffered from mental illness and required medication for an ulcer condition.  He was denied that medication and placed naked into a solitary confinement cell after he tried to fight a guard.

His condition was so bad that when guards from California came to pull him up on warrants, they refused to take custody due to his poor condition, resulting in California dropping charges.  Rather than release Mosely, guards are seen throwing food at him and pepper spraying him.  Eventually, Mosely died due to 12 ulcers.

The fourth death involved Kirsten Simm, 33, at the Anchorage jail on June 6, 2014.  She vomited and urinated on her mattress and “told a guard that she was very sick, could not stop throwing up, and that she needed to go see a nurse,” a lawsuit complaint states.  A guard refused to allow her to go to the medical facility and instructed her to move her mattress closer to the cell’s toilet.

About three hours later, janitorial staff is seen on video cleaning up urine and vomit from under Simm’s cell door, but no one checked on her.  An hour and a half later, a guard noticed Simm’s skin had turned blue.

The fifth death involved the strangling death of Mark Canul.  He was a paranoid schizophrenic who a judge ordered none days before his murder to be moved to Alaska Psychiatric Institute.  Instead, he was placed into a cell with James Clinton, who also had psychiatric issues.  Clinton, 20, was charged with Canul’s murder.

The Alaska Correctional Officers Association was not pleased with the report into the deaths, especially the part concerning Kobul’s death, who it said was not an “innocent victim.”

The union “keeps revisiting this as if this was an appropriate, justified, ok death that occurred in the facility.  It’s not ok.  It’s not appropriate.  And this isn’t my idea on this, this is anyone who has professional training…that’s not how you teach restraint,” said Williams.

The problems are deep rooted.  “What I think you have is a systematic breakdown,” said State Senator Lesil McGuire.  “You have a lack of training, you have the timing of the training versus when the individual is asked to take the job,  you have rules and policies that are arguably not being followed in the best interest of safety.”


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