While the number of inmates walking away from halfway houses has decreased significantly, according to Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams, he says the reason some people have left before finishing their sentences points to a troubling issue his department is now attacking with multiple fresh resources.

Instead of leaving custody to get drugs, as some might think, Williams says, in some cases, inmates have left halfway houses to get away from the drugs that are inside DOC prisons. The department doesn't currently track drug activity in its halfway houses.

“It’s happened, and I’ve been keenly aware of that,” he said during an interview with KTVA this week.

DOC acknowledges that it has a problem, but only provided data on drugs in prisons during the last month. He says it’s difficult to know the scope of the issue.

“We know what we’re catching. We know that a lot more gets by us,” he said, adding later, “We know that there are still drugs in the halfway houses, and it’s a problem for some of the people there.”

Williams believes the problem in Alaska isn’t any worse than in other states, but he doesn’t know that it’s any better, and it’s not easy to make an accurate comparison. A good indicator, he said, is the price drugs are going for in jail and halfway houses, where they already cost more than they do on the street -- a concept he calls “a secondary black market.”

“[Drugs] are worth a lot in prison, and the bad guys know that,” said Williams, explaining the more scarce the drugs are, the higher the price.

In an email Thursday, DOC spokesperson Megan Edge shared data from last month with KTVA.

“In September, the Department of Corrections confiscated 68 Suboxone strips – which sell for $150 to $500 in the [prisons] – and we confiscated 17.55 grams of heroin – which sells for $500 to $600 per gram,” Edge wrote.

That’s $10,200 to $34,000 worth of Suboxone and $8,755 to $10,530 worth of heroin. Edge says both amounts were gathered from multiple seizures.

Suboxone is an addictive painkiller with an opioid-like high. The substance is on strips of paper that can be dissolved on the tongue and easily hidden in mail, cards and books.

KTVA initially asked for data on drugs inside DOC facilities on September 6 and was told on September 8, the information was not being tracked at the time.

During the interview Tuesday, Williams said the tracking was happening, but at random and “haphazardly.” He says that has now changed, in part, due to new hires.

Koda, the department’s new drug-sniffing K-9, was hired in March. The dog and his handler, DOC Sgt. Josh Wood, are now making rounds through all DOC facilities, looking for drugs where they don’t belong.

In addition, Williams says the Internal Affairs Unit he created when he took the job last year is now actively investigating drug trafficking. He also says the department is coordinating with State and Federal partners to better gather and use intelligence, so Koda and Wood know where to look.

It’s a three-part combo he says he knows will work, because he sees progress already.

“It's like fishing on the bank with a rod and having a boat and being out in the middle of the fish,” explained Williams, “We’ve just improved, increased our ability to go after trafficking in a completely different way.”

As for walkways, the DOC was averaging one a day from its eight halfway houses in the state last year. Now, Williams says the rates are down by roughly 75 percent in Anchorage, where his department saw the most concentrated numbers.

Editor's note: DOC initially indicated it was tracking drug use in all its facilities, but clarified that it only had data from prisons.

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