DOC moves forward with plan to send inmates outside, despite growing opposition
Since Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration announced the Department of Corrections is moving forward with a plan to ship hundreds of Alaska inmates to the Lower 48 to serve their sentences, the move has received sharp public criticism.
DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom announced the request for proposal during a teleconference with media outlets on Oct. 15. She cited a growing prison population resulting from the passage of House Bill 49, which repealed and replaced the controversial Senate Bill 91, as well as dangerously low staffing levels.
The request for proposal is set for a three-year contract with the possibility of an extension and would cover up to 750 prisoners. Dahlstrom said the move to transfer inmates to out of state facilities is one that will increase safety within Alaska's institutions and is anticipated to lower costs, but the DOC is not closing any facilities or issuing any layoffs.
The decision conflicts with the Legislature's intended remedy: re-opening Palmer Correctional Center.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is the latest group to raise red flags, publicly condemning the decision and filing several public records requests related to the announcement.
A news release from the organization reads:
"Overcrowding in state prisons was a well-discussed consequence of House Bill 49. As a solution, DOC officials testified and explained in fiscal notes of the bill that the Department would reopen the nearly abandoned PCC. Given Alaska's troubled history sending inmates Outside, the aforementioned plan provided reassurance that DOC was prepared to deal with a spike in the prison population without resorting to the unsuccessful practices of the past. The legislature appropriated funding for the reopening of PCC as part of the state's current budget."
Additionally, 22 lawmakers spoke out in opposition of the move, urging Dahlstrom to reconsider the Dunleavy administration's plan. A letter to Dahlstrom reads in part:
"This past June, the House of Representatives soundly rejected appropriating money for out-of-state incarceration in private prisons by a bipartisan vote of 29-to-6, based in part on the failure of the administration to offer a plausible justification for it. In order to meet the projected increase in prison population due to the passage of House Bill 49 – sweeping public safety legislation that strengthened criminal penalties across the board – the House approved $16 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to be used strictly for the purpose of reopening the PCC."
For the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, the decision is one President Randy McLellan said he was cautiously optimistic the administration wouldn't go through with.
During a Jan. 23 news conference on crime, Dunleavy told Alaskans he would spare no expense when it comes to public safety.
"When people ask the question, 'Well, are these folks gonna go to jail?' Yes, they're gonna go to jail. And will we need to increase the number of beds in jails? Probably, yes. Will we need to increase jails? Maybe. We'll see," the governor said. "We're not going to spare any resources that will be necessary to turn this around. I'm serious about this. This is not just campaign rhetoric."
While the union did not endorse a gubernatorial candidate, McLellan remembers feeling hopeful as Dunleavy entered office.
"We were hopeful when he spoke those words and we thought, 'Wow, you know, maybe we're going to see a... in this next four years maybe is gonna be good for public safety,'" he said.
Less than a month later, the governor unveiled his plan to send hundreds of inmates out of state. A move then budget director Donna Arduin said was expected to save the state around $12 million.
Now that the DOC has begun an aggressive RFP process, the union is calling on Dunleavy and Dahlstrom to reconsider.
McLellan says public safety is still paying the price for the last time Alaska sent inmates Outside.
"We really didn’t have much of a gang problem. We started sending prisoners out of state, and as a matter of survival, they start to assimilate towards these gangs and groups for protection, for safety. We bring them all home, it’s either go to Goose Creek or integrate back into society, and they integrate as the 1488's or the Low Lives or the Native Brotherhood," McLellan explained. "Those three gangs, Alaska created by sending prisoners out of state."
He describes their time in the Lower 48 as attending "criminal college."
"I've heard those same things and I've heard those concerns for years, and again that's why in the RFP we address programming and anger management, domestic violence, the treatment, different sexual programs that they have to have, plus education, plus, you know cultural things. That's extremely important that we do that," Dahlstrom responded during an interview Friday.
A previous release from the DOC said, "A successful vendor will provide sufficient communication options for inmates to stay in touch with families, ensure Alaskan inmates are housed together and facilitate reentry measures for all offenders."
As for the gang issue, Dahlstrom acknowledged that gangs are a real problem in prisons and communities across the country.
"Whether people are here or there, I anticipate that that's going to be something that's going to continue," she said.
Dahlstrom said the Palmer facility needs roughly $21 million in repairs in order to be functional, citing a lack of security camera systems and a control board that is so old the state is unable to purchase new parts for it.
Then there's the issue of labor, she said. The department is currently down 84 officers and would require an additional 70 to fill positions in Palmer, according to Dahlstrom.
McLellan said it the Dunleavy administration knew about the staffing levels and the projected increase in prisoners months ago, but failed to act.
"There’s no surprises. They had calculations and projections for everything that’s happening," he said, suggesting the staffing shortage was purposefully ignored.
He continued, "It appears as though that they have maybe intentionally not pushed a robust hiring program, recruitment program, in order to create this crisis."
Dahlstrom said the accusation came as a shock to her.
"What they are saying is absolutely untrue and I'm honestly really disappointed that they've chosen to take this route," she said.
She added that she was "totally stunned" when she saw the letter ACOA released, imploring the governor to reconsider and stating his administration is "endangering Alaskans."
"Since I came in as commissioner, recruitment has been a top priority for me," she said. "I know that we need quality staffing. We need people that — these are critical jobs. These are important and we deal with people's lives. They're very important. So recruiting has always been important. I've been talking about it since week one, actually established a recruitment committee that has been meeting since March, and actually the corrections officers union has been sitting on that committee."
Dahlstrom said she looked into PCC and any other possible scenario for months, but believes contracting with an out of state company is the only viable choice for now when it comes to providing safety inside Alaska facilities.
"I need to keep everybody safe," she said.
Even so, the union stands firm in its warning: "Alaska will be left with the damage," McLellan said.
The department's goal is to see the contract awarded to a successful bidder by the end of the year, with the transfer of inmates beginning in early 2020.
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