Governor may release video of St. Michael man who died in prison

A view of St. Michael.  (KNOM file photo)
A view of St. Michael. (KNOM file photo)

Almost a year after Larry Kobuk’s death, a special assistant to the governor traveled to St. Michael last week and met with the late man’s family.

Kobuk died in January after being restrained at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. His was one of many inmate deaths in the last few years that led Gov. Bill Walker to call for an independent review of Alaska’s Department of Corrections.

Download Audio

Since the highly critical report came out last month, the governor’s office has said prisons need to be safer — and released the videos of two inmate deaths.

Larry Kobuk’s video could be out next.

Before Dean Williams was special assistant to the governor and co-wrote the recent DOC review, he ran the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. Before that, he led the Nome Youth Facility and worked at the district attorney’s offices in Nome and Kotzebue. When he looks back at his long career, though, Williams said meeting Larry’s Kobuk’s family in St. Michael will be one of the days that sticks out most.

“Very emotional. Larry’s mother started off the meeting with a prayer, and she invited all of the siblings along,” Williams said. “They knew I had brought the video of Larry’s death inside the prison. I warned them all ahead of time. Of course, it was difficult to watch.”

According to the review, the video shows Kobuk brought into booking around 11 p.m. after he was arrested for vehicle theft and eluding police. He tells a nurse he has a heart condition and takes medicine, and then he refuses to give his sweatshirts to correctional staff. He’s taken to a cell, and then the video shows officers placing him face down before they remove his handcuffs and clothes.

The DOC report notes that officers are “on Mr. Kobuk’s back” during this process and that he “yells several times” that he can’t breathe. Minutes later, when Kobuk is still face down and unmoving, officers try to rouse him and begin “life-saving efforts.” Kobuk is eventually taken to a hospital and pronounced dead before 1 a.m.

Helen Paniptchuk is Kobuk’s mother. She saw the video for the first time last week, and she said she considers the correctional staff responsible for her son’s death.

“They literally killed him,” said Paniptchuk. “There’s absolutely no reason why it should have happened. I mean, they literally took out a 33-year-old man’s life.”

The report said there was no personnel investigation after Kobuk’s death, and the DOC did not find the restraint process to be excessive. The review, on the other hand, stated that “an inmate with a reported heart condition might warrant decreased force,” especially since Kobuk did not appear to present a safety threat.

Despite Paniptchuk’s frustration that no correctional staff was charged with misconduct in the incident, she said meeting with Williams and finally seeing the video was a “godsend” that helped her family find closure.

“The guys who did this to Larry, they should be accountable, too. But love and mercy to the people that did this to him — to my son and to the other inmates as well,” she said.

Gov. Walker has already released the videos for two of the four inmate deaths highlighted in the DOC report, and Williams said Kobuk’s could be made public soon. Ultimately, it’s the governor’s decision, but Williams has been visiting the families of late inmates first — to show them the videos in advance and get their input.

He said the goal is be transparent about the problems in Alaska prisons, and so far, most family members have been on board.

Paniptchuk said it’s very important that the video of her son’s death be made public.

“My thought process behind getting it released is that you can see what actually happened,” she said. “The truth shall set us free, and the truth will set a lot of peoples’ minds free about what happened to Larry.”

Beyond helping families find closure, Williams said releasing the videos is another way for the state to show its commitment to changing Alaska’s prison system for the better.

“I’ve never been able to fix anything — whether it’s your car or your life or anything — without knowing what the problem is first,” he said. “I think the first thing we have to get is beyond any sense of denial and say: ‘This is what happened. Why do we think it happened? And what can we do differently the next time?’”

The report outlines several things the DOC can do differently, including providing better training for prison staff and creating an internal investigation team that reports outside the department.

The recommendations were based on visits to correctional facilities around the state, interviews with inmates and prison employees, and the videos of 11 inmate deaths — much of which pointed towards unclear and out-of-date policies, broken chains of command, and flawed attempts by the DOC to investigate itself in cases of alleged misconduct.

Williams said the governor is looking seriously at all the recommendations and has already started on some. Walker removed the DOC Commissioner, and Williams said his interim replacement has begun updating corrections policies, some of which haven’t been revised since the 1980s.

Williams said they’ve also started developing the internal affairs agency to handle DOC investigations by researching other models, a preliminary process that may take six months to a year.

The decision on the video of Larry Kobuk’s death, however, should come much quicker. Williams met with Walker this week to share his experience with Kobuk’s family in St. Michael, and he said the governor will make a final decision soon. If the video is made public, it’ll be available through news outlets, not through the DOC or governor’s websites.

In the meantime, Williams said the governor’s office is dedicated to making Alaska’s prisons safe and rebuilding public trust.

“It’s important work, and it’s one the governor is committed to seeing through. I am as well,” he said. “There’s kind of a calling on this now. We’re not going anywhere.”

Previous articleAnchorage Chamber announces 2016 legislative priorities
Next articleAlaska’s pot cafes will give patrons a taste of cannabis
Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. ( / 907.581.6700)

No posts to display