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Alaska prison guards union alleges bias in report on inmate deaths

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published January 29, 2016

The union representing state prison guards says the man just appointed to head the corrections department reached the wrong conclusion and showed bias in a recent report criticizing guards for their treatment of an inmate who died in a jail cell.

To back its assertions, the Alaska Correctional Officers Association released a video Friday with sound showing the events preceding the death of 33-year-old Larry Kobuk at the Anchorage jail last year.

The state had previously released the video, which shows guards aggressively handling Kobuk, but the video lacked sound. In the version released by the union, Kobuk can clearly be heard shouting expletives and threats at officers early in the encounter. But before he died, Kobuk also said he couldn't breathe.

Union officials said at a news conference at their downtown Anchorage office that their research counters the findings of a report, co-authored by new Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams, that found widespread failures at the state's lockups. Union president Randy McLellan said the report's conclusions about Kobuk's death were "incredibly dishonest."

The state report was released in November.

Formerly a superintendent of the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage, Williams was hired as a special assistant in Gov. Bill Walker's office before writing the report. He was appointed corrections commissioner Thursday.

One of the four inmate deaths reviewed in the report was that of Kobuk, who died at the Anchorage jail after being arrested on Jan. 27, 2015.

The administrative report found that officers used excessive force and lacked any clear or immediate threats to their safety while preparing Kobuk for custody.

The release of the video without audio didn't tell the whole story, union officials said. They also said the public release of the video itself was a problem. Because the faces of guards could be seen, the video threatened officer safety and caused unnecessary pain for the officers, said McLellan and union business manager Brad Wilson.

Kobuk was not an "innocent victim," as portrayed in the report, McLellan said, citing the audio evidence.

Responding to the union's allegations, Williams said, "The Kobuk video speaks for itself."

Williams said the audio was not released because of the way the audio files were structured on the computer system.

"I would have released the audio if anyone was interested in it … I just didn't think it was necessary," 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 the way you teach restraint," Williams said.

The union had asked for a retraction of the report and for the state to "publicly defend the harmed officers," but with no response from the state, and after Williams was appointed commissioner Thursday, the union decided to release the video, Wilson said.

In the video, Kobuk can be heard swearing at officers while sitting in the booking area and repeatedly saying, "Kill the cops."

"It can only be assumed that these derogatory comments did not fit into Dean Williams' narrative of the death, so he, or someone, left them out," said a document provided by Wilson.

"Swearing at officers and threatening them does not justify what occurred in the adjacent room," Williams said in response to their allegations.

Once the incident moved into the cell, the audio becomes muddled — the nearest microphone was outside the room. Kobuk can be heard saying, "I can't breathe." The union alleges that the audio shows him resisting and refusing to remove his clothing as required by policy, although making out discernable comments is difficult.

In further support of their allegations, Wilson gave reporters a copy of a public safety investigation conducted by Attorney General Craig Richards. The report found that the state would not pursue criminal charges against the four officers.

To that, Williams responded: "The fact that the AG …. declined to prosecute them criminally does not justify a death."

Also released Friday were emails from interim corrections commissioner Walt Monegan, who preceded Williams, in which he advised officers on how to be cautious around inmates after the release of the video.

McLellan said the union was crafting a report "on every single incident" that "sheds light on all the inaccuracies" in the report.

"I had met with the union several times before they came out with these allegations that the report was false," Williams said. "I understand if people disagree with my recommendations at the time … I'm not going to get into a debate on a point-by-point basis."

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