How a shameful Alaska jail death took a decorated hero

If you needed help, you would want Joseph Murphy. He was practical and handy. He was outgoing, funny and smart. He was brave.

He defended his country in combat in Iraq. He was decorated by the National Park Service for rescuing a man off the ice in the Chukchi Sea. He acted in a movie promoting healing for his Alaska Native culture.

But he can't help anymore, because he died last summer on the floor of a jail cell in Juneau, cursed, improperly detained and denied the kind of aid he had given to others. His case was one of the egregious failures of Alaska's corrections system detailed in a report released by Governor Bill Walker last month.

Murphy had not been charged with a crime. But Alaska has made a habit of using jails to house drunks, and this is the result.

But before assigning blame, it's fitting to remember who Joseph Murphy was.

Born in Anchorage, he grew up in Emmonak, at the mouth of the Yukon River, and moved as an adult to Kotzebue, where he was a maintenance worker for the park service and a volunteer firefighter, and won an award for his work in the ambulance. In 2000, Murphy and Archie Ferguson were on a work assignment on the Cape Krusenstern coast when they saw a seal hunter waving in distress from cracked, rotten sea ice.

Murphy and Ferguson drove their snowmachines as far out on the broken ice as they could, then inched their way farther on foot and crawling on their bellies. They got the hunter back alive. Peter Christian, who was a district ranger at the time, said local park service staff nominated the men for a national award for valor, which they received in Washington, D.C. The Alaska National Guard also recognized Murphy's heroism with an award.


Murphy spent years in the guard, as Lisa Phu of KTOO in Juneau first reported. Younger soldiers remembered his caring as he helped them get oriented to the military. In 2005, at age 40, his was deployed as an infantryman. His unit patrolled Bagdad, fought firefights, took fire from rocket-propelled grenades, encountered improvised explosive devices and saw horrors.

Murphy's unit commander in Iraq, Ed Irizarry, a 22-year veteran, called him, "One of the bravest men I had the honor of serving with." He said Murphy won a variety of ribbons and decorations for his service.

Irizarry and others recalled Murphy volunteering to go ahead of the unit on his own to check a suspicious vehicle so others could stay at a safe distance.

"There was plenty of times [he did that]," said Mike Mercer, who spent that tour with Murphy. "He wasn't afraid to put himself on the line for anybody. Just like he should. Murphy did his job. And he did his job very well."

Murphy married Tammy Jablonski in 2001 in Juneau, where her mother lives. Jablonski was executive director of Hospice and Home Care of Juneau and later worked for Rainforest Recovery Center, an addiction treatment facility. Murphy worked next door, doing maintenance at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

His co-workers liked him, said Lisle Hebert, who retired from there in February. "He was funny. He was smart. He had a good heart. I always loved bumping into him because we'd always joke around and tease each other and have a good time."

Hebert is a filmmaker. He cast Murphy in a docudrama he is making based on Yup'ik writer Harold Napoleon's book, Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. The film will show how Alaska Natives have inherited the traumas of the past, including the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the loss of culture in the invasion of white settlers. Murphy paddled a canoe in front of a green screen in the film's historic section.

Murphy experienced childhood trauma as well as post traumatic stress disorder after his time in combat. He was convicted for driving while intoxicated last year, although Hebert never saw him drunk.

Randall Gamble knew Murphy before and after his service in Iraq.

"He didn't seem to have changed that much," Gamble said. "I knew Murphy as a clean and sober guy, and I was just floored that he was intoxicated at the time [of his death]. I didn't know Murphy like that. He was a really well-respected person in the community."

But Murphy was having serious troubles in his last months of life. On August 13, Juneau police brought him to Lemon Creek Correctional Center from the hospital for a "protective hold." The Juneau Police Department didn't respond to my requests for an interview, so I don't know why he was detained. The co-author of the report, Dean Williams, said he didn't know. Murphy's blood alcohol level was about twice the limit to drive, but well below the levels often recorded in street drunks.

The report says Murphy arrived around 7 p.m. and slept in the jail. He was sober in the morning, but corrections officers wouldn't let him out. The report suggests they didn't understand that the law allowing protective custody requires release as soon as a person is no longer incapacitated, or up to a maximum of 12 hours. They treated the 12 hours as a minimum.

Murphy beat loudly on the door. He had a heart condition. He told an officer his chest hurt and asked for his pills. Officers said they offered to call emergency medical services. Murphy kept beating on the door. After 40 minutes, an officer identified in the report as 'Staff 3' told him to stop and to "suck it up." Soon they were yelling "f--- you" at each other.

Another officer said he heard Murphy request medical care and Staff 3 responded, "I don't care, you could die right now and I don't care."

He did die. About 20 minutes later.

It's easy to blame that nameless corrections officer, Staff 3. But there's too much wrong here. The Alaska Correctional Officers Association has been calling attention to problems in our prisons for many years, mostly to be ignored. Its business manager, Brad Wilson, said officers don't have medical training, Lemon Creek doesn't have 24/7 medical staff, and no medical information was provided when Murphy arrived.

"Now, as before, correctional officers continue to be used as scapegoats for a flawed system," Wilson said. "Mr. Murphy should never have been released from the hospital."


The co-author of the governor's report, Dean Williams, agrees that officers have an impossible job without adequate facilities or training to handle medically unstable non-criminal prisoners they receive.

It's not like Murphy was the first. Fifteen people died in Alaska's prisons in the past 12 months. Maybe his last way of helping will be by getting us to care enough to fix that.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times a week in Alaska Dispatch News. He is a life-long Alaskan and author of 10 books. Find him on facebook or email him at cwohlforth(at)alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.