The deaths of 25 Alaska prisoners over an 18-month period were examined in a November 2015 report provided to Governor Bill Walker, who then replaced the state’s corrections commissioner with the author of the report. The handling of the deaths, including a lack of staff training, was strongly criticized.
Calling the report’s findings “disturbing,” Walker announced at a press conference on January 28, 2016 that he was nominating Dean Williams as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC). Williams led the three-month review into the 25 deaths at state prisons and the Anchorage Correctional Complex, a jail.
Williams’ 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 being booked into the facility that he suffered from a heart condition.
In a video, Kobuk is heard swearing at guards in the booking area and repeatedly stating “kill the cops.” When he refused to remove two sweatshirts, guards restrained him and tried to cut them off with scissors. Kobuk was heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” and guards admitted he made that statement. Kobuk eventually stopped breathing and guards reportedly delayed efforts to revive him. His death followed four other prisoners who died in the spring of 2014.
The April 4, 2014 death of prisoner Davon Mosley, 20, was due to an “apparent disregard” for his mental health and medical conditions. Mosely suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and required medication for an unusual cluster of bleeding ulcers. He was denied his medication and placed naked into a solitary confinement cell after he tried to fight a guard.
His condition was so poor that when officers from California came to pick him up on warrants from that state, they refused to take him into custody and California dropped its charges. Rather than release Mosely, guards allegedly threw food at him and then pepper sprayed him. Eventually, his untreated ulcers led to his death.
On April 10, 2014, Amanda Kernak, 24, died at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Complex (HMCC) after showing signs of alcohol withdrawal. DOC officials later said her death resulted from complications related to alcohol-caused liver damage.
Mark Bolus, a 24-year-old with schizophrenia, hanged himself at the Anchorage Correctional Complex on May 11, 2014, after spending weeks in isolation. His family has since filed a lawsuit against corrections officials.
The fourth prisoner to die that spring was Kirsten Simon, 33, a mother of two who died at the Anchorage jail on June 6, 2014 while awaiting transfer to HMCC following her arrest on warrants for forgery and theft.
Simon vomited, 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,” according to a lawsuit filed in June 2016 by Simon’s family. A guard refused to send her to the medical unit and ordered her to move her mattress closer to the cell’s toilet.
About three hours later, janitorial staff was seen on video cleaning up urine and vomit from under Simon’s cell door, but no one checked on her. An hour-and-a-half later, a guard noticed Simon’s skin had turned blue.
The first of two prisoner deaths in 2015 occurred on August 14, after Joseph Murphy was jailed on a “protective custody” hold at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center because he was drunk. Murphy, 49, appeared sober enough to be released at 5 a.m. Guards, however, considered the 12-hour hold 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, complaining of chest pains.
He was told he would be released in an hour and someone would “gladly call” emergency services if he needed them then. Murphy didn’t make it that long; he collapsed on the floor and was discovered by a guard delivering breakfast trays. He died due to a heart attack.
A wrongful death suit filed by Murphy’s family in Juneau Superior Court on July 18, 2017 claimed that a nurse and two guards had ignored his requests for help.
The other death in 2015 involved the strangling of Mark Canul at the Anchorage Correctional Complex on December 11. Canul, mostly deaf and a paranoid schizophrenic, was awaiting a transfer to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. He was placed in a cell with James Clinton, who also had mental health issues. Clinton, 20, was charged with murdering Canul.
Canul’s family filed a lawsuit against the DOC on June 1, 2016, raising claims of negligence and failure to properly train staff members and supervise prisoners.
“It’s not really about the money,” said Janine Canul, Mark’s sister. “It’s about them taking responsibility and changing the way they do things. If that means we have to hit them in the pocketbook, so be it,”
Deaths continued to occur at DOC facilities after the report authored by Dean Williams was released, including the death of Kellsie Green at the Anchorage jail in January 2016.
Green, 24, died just six days after she was booked into the facility; a heroin addict, she weighed 80 pounds at the time of her death while she was detoxing. According to several other prisoners, Green’s requests for medical care were mostly ignored and she was reportedly placed in a solitary confinement cell.
“The lack of compassion for somebody that’s going through this – how can that be?” Green’s father asked during an interview with Alaska Dispatch News. “This isn’t a jail in Turkey or somewhere. This is America.”
Sadly, Green’s family had called the police to have her arrested in a last-ditch effort to deal with her heroin addiction. “We wholeheartedly believed [being in jail] would keep her alive,” her father said.
According to her death certificate, Green died of malnutrition, dehydration, renal failure and heart dysrhythmia. Her family filed suit against the DOC in March 2016, claiming staff had “failed and/or refused to provide Ms. Green with adequate medical care during obvious and serious withdrawal symptoms.”
On January 10, 2017, Nina Amigale Alexie, 22, was found dead of an apparent suicide in her cell at HMCC. And most recently, in May 2017, Daniel Mark Brusehaber, 60, died at the Goose Creek Correctional Center. A DOC statement said he had summoned staff with a call button to complain he was “having a hard time breathing.” A cause of death was not released.
After the series of deaths in 2014, a state legislator asked top DOC officials to answer questions at a public hearing.
“While I realize that the Department deals with thousands of inmates daily, it seems to me that the public needs more information about what happened in these cases and what steps the Department is taking to ensure the safety of Alaskans in custody, especially those with physical or mental health issues,” Senator Hollis French wrote in a June 13, 2014 letter to then-DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt. “There’s concern in the community over the spate of inmate deaths,” he added.
The DOC said ten to 12 people, on average, die each year in state custody – not least because prisoners are more likely to have serious medical problems.
“Many inmates come to the department from exceptionally difficult lifestyles – generally not conducive to overall good health,” wrote Sherrie Daigle, a DOC spokeswoman.
The Alaska Correctional Officers Association was not pleased with the report into the prison and jail deaths, especially the section concerning Kobuk’s death, saying he was not an “innocent victim.” The organization also disputed whether corrections staff had failed to seek medical care for Green.
But referring to Kobuk’s death, DOC Commissioner Williams said 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.”
The problems contributing to the deaths of Alaskan prisoners are deep rooted, according to state Senator Lesil McGuire.
“What I think you have is a systematic breakdown,” she said. “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.”
And, as a result, prisoners have suffered preventable deaths.
Sources: Alaska Dispatch News, www.treatmentadvocacycenter.com, www.atlanticbb.net, www.ktoo.org
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