Opposition mounting as Dunleavy administration plans to ship inmates to private, Outside prisons
Public comments during a House State Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday regarding the Dunleavy administration's plan to ship incarcerated Alaskans out of state to serve time in private prisons were overwhelmingly negative.
Alaska Department of Corrections 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 She cited a growing prison population resulting from the passage of House Bill 49, which repealed and replaced the controversial Senate Bill 91, as well as dangerously low staffing levels.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 now closed and the DOC is moving forward with its plan to award a contract to a successful bidder by the end of the year, even as more voices are rising in opposition.
At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers heard from Chet Adkins with Southcentral Foundation's Native Men's Wellness Program. Adkins, who served time as an Alaskan inmate in a private prison in the Lower 48, gave a firsthand account of what he saw while incarcerated.
"We were exposed to the most violent people," he said, later adding, "We were taught by other states how to act as convicts. And that was all done under, you know, the guise of saving money."
Adkins referenced a high-profile homicide case involving alleged members of the 1488s — a violent, white supremacist prison gang that is active inside and outside of corrections facilities in Alaska.
"Our being Outside for that amount of time, being exposed to the things we were, are directly responsible for that," Adkins said.
Randy McLellan, President of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, corroborated Adkins statements, sharing what he saw as a DOC employee when inmates who had been sent Outside to serve their sentences started to come home.
"These prisoners came back organized into three different primary gangs, now validated in Alaska, as the Low Lives, the 1488, and the Native Brotherhood," McLellan said. "In essence, Alaska created these gangs by sending incarcerated Alaskans to out of state prisons."
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, has said he will introduce a bill that would halt the practice of housing Alaskan prisoners out of state.
"It is puzzling that the Dunleavy administration seems so fixated on shipping prisoners out of state when overwhelmingly, Alaskans are opposed to it, correctional officers are opposed to it, families are opposed to it, the public safety community is opposed to it," Fields said. "Why the administration is fixated on it, I don't know. If the administration starts shipping prisoners out of state, and subsequently, legislation passes which becomes law, then it would stop that process."
Fields pointed to a DOC memo from March of this year, which listed projections for reopening parts of Palmer Correctional Center. The memo estimates part of the facility could have been opened with funds appropriated by the Legislature in the span of nine months.
"So we've already appropriated the money to reopen Palmer and had they just started in May, we would just be a few months away from reopening Palmer. This is the Department of Corrections own document, so why have they not begun doing this and aggressively recruite It doesn't make sense," Fields said Wednesday.
DOC Deputy Commissioner and Legislative Liaison Kelly Goode participated in the hearing, addressing questions and concerns from lawmakers. She described the department's facilities as overpopulated and understaffed — down 90 corrections officers with the prison population at 98% max capacity.
"We can't staff it," she said in response to questions about PCC. "And I know there's discussions about recruitment, but the department has an active ongoing building recruitment program and so that's really what it's about."
Opening PCC would require DOC to hire an additional 74 officers, according to Goode.
"The commissioner is not looking to open it unless we can staff it," she said, when asked if the department had a date in mind for reopening the empty facility.
The department's goal is to begin transferring inmates to the Lower 48 beginning in early 2020.
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