Following a tumultuous year for the state Department of Corrections, its newly appointed commissioner is making changes, unraveling policies and programs set in motion by her predecessor.

Nancy Dahlstrom is part of new Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy's public safety team, along with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson. Dunleavy promised to reduce crime across the state, as he campaigned last year to replace then-Gov. Bill Walker.

With support from state lawmakers, Walker backed Senate Bill 91, an attempt to reduce the state's prison population by emphasizing pretrial diversion and rehabilitation programs. SB 91 became a rallying cry for Alaskans' frustrations with rising crime rates, however, when a series of defendants released during the pretrial process went on to commit new crimes.

Dunleavy has shown a get-tough stance on crime, saying in one of the gubernatorial campaign's final debates that "We are going to make sure criminals are on the run, not the law-abiding citizens."

Shortly after stepping into DOC's top job, Dahlstrom dissolved the Professional Conduct Unit, a small team charged with internal investigations at DOC, and a product of predecessor Dean Williams' tenure he had hoped would be preserved.

In her first sit-down television interview as commissioner Thursday, Dahlstrom announced several more policy changes — undoing more of the department's Williams-era practices — including the suspension of an initiative that was never documented in DOC policy.

Volunteer In-Reach Program

According to policies posted on the DOC website, the Volunteer In-Reach Program allowed approved community members, referred to as "VIPs" to access facilities outside of regular visiting hours with little supervision.

"VIPs are distinguished from other community in-reach providers and volunteers in that their status as "Super-volunteers" permits them to:

1.) Enter institutions outside of normal visitation hours, without direct supervision, and with flexible scheduling, as needed to provide in-reach services to prisoners;
2.) Access pre-determined areas of institutions without escort;
3.) Meet with prisoners, individually and in groups, without direct supervision;
4.) Carry and use institutional radios to communicate with staff and carry out in-reach duties;
5.) Any other action required to carry out the VIP mission that is approved by the Superintendent."

After passing a background check and participating in a training, VIP's received DOC photo identification cards.

Dahlstrom has suspended this policy, citing insufficient documentation of thorough background checks for volunteers. 

A Thursday statement from DOC said the program "allowed citizens unrestricted access into our facilities without structure and with disregard to the order of our correctional facilities."

Day Pass Program

Implemented in December of 2017 and revised in June of 2018, the Day Pass Program allowed inmates to leave institutional facilities for up to 12-hour periods under the supervision of approved volunteers.

According to the program's policy posted on the DOC website, the volunteers must either have VIP status or pass a DOC background check and receive approval from the facility superintendent.

In order for a prisoner to participate, the individual had to be minimum custody and in compliance with their offender management plan. People who had pending charges, convictions for violent crimes within the last three years, any history of escaping from police or a state correctional institution, a history of fleeing from a halfway house within the last two years, or a mandatory 99-year sentence were not eligible for the program.

The policy recently drew public criticism, as it did not mandate victims, law enforcement or members of the public be notified of the pass.

"I couldn’t find any documentation of really thorough background checks," Dahlstrom said. "People were able to come in, and I believe they all had good intentions, and they were able to come in and basically check out an inmate for up to 12 hours a day and they were in the public, and I felt like it maybe wasn’t the safest."

Dahlstrom has suspended the program, pending further research.

"I do believe we were violating constitutional rights of victims by them not being notified," she said. 

Dahlstrom noted that she does not have knowledge of any crimes committed by inmates while utilizing a pass, but can't say that there were no violations because of the program's poor documentation. 

Amnesty Boxes 

A practice for which no written policy is posted online is said to have allowed inmates the option of turning over illegal substances without receiving any consequences.

"I heard about it but couldn’t find any documentation on it so I actually went into some of the facilities and saw the physical amnesty boxes," Dahlstrom said. "They look like small mini mail boxes, United States Post Office boxes like you might see on the corner." 

She went on to describe a practice for which she can find no records of, and one that she believes put safety inside correctional facilities at risk. 

"What would happen is, if an officer was to go into a cell, or they were going to do a search, or there was something that an inmate had they might be written up for or an infraction on, they were able to say 'amnesty' and the officer had to take them to the amnesty box and turn their back while the inmate put whatever it was that they had into that box," Dahlstrom said.

She said the guards were prohibited from looking as inmates put items into the box, and there is no inventory or record of what was placed inside the boxes.

"It also put our officers in a very bad situation that they were not allowed to follow the proper procedures and write people up when these infractions were happening," Dahlstrom said. "They had to turn their back on it." 

The fact that there is no policy written for the amnesty boxes strikes her as "not right" and is unlike anything she's ever heard of happening in other correctional facilities across the country. 

Dahlstrom has suspended the practice. 

Prisoner Authorized Property List 

Revision to another policy is intended to simplify a cumbersome process of moving and transporting people who are in DOC custody. 

Dahlstrom said prisoners were once allowed a box to keep their personal belongings in and a box for their documents. The policy was then expanded to allow five boxes per person.

"It was extremely unmanageable," Dahlstrom said. "There was a lot of cost and things involved in that. Any time anything was moved, all those property boxes had to be moved with them and then there was a constant inventory in and then inventory out that needed to be done."

The policy has now been reversed back to the two-box limit. Inmates will receive assistance with the transition.

The future of Alaska's DOC 

As for how other policies and departments within DOC could change in the coming months and years, Dahlstrom deferred to Dunleavy's upcoming State of the State address, which is expected to include information about his public safety plan. 

In her role, she makes this commitment of transparency: 

"I will be as open and honest as everything that I am legally able to do with Alaskans."

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