House votes to keep inmates in Alaska, citing cost and risk of sending prisoners to Lower 48

House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, during a 2019 House floor session. (Photo by Alaska House Majority/Facebook)

Recognizing the potential risks, the House reversed course on language in the capital budget that would have allowed the state to restart the controversial practice of shipping inmates to for-profit prisons in the Lower 48.

On a 29-6 vote, the House today axed language that would have allowed money intended to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center to be used to send inmates to “out-of-state facilities.” The sponsor of the change, Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she was not convinced the move would save the state money or make Alaska safer.

Wilson co-chairs the House Finance Committee and was responsible for putting together the capital budget. She said she recently visited with inmates who had done time in Lower 48 prisons.

“They talked about how the inmates ran the prison and how many came back as gang members marked from that,” she said. “I’m not even sure we save any money. … The biggest thing is the cost that we have to the individuals that come back here and the type of the individual they come back as, possibly breaking the law even more. Those are costs that are hard to put down as dollars and cents.”

She also said the administration hadn’t done anything to show that sending inmates to the Lower 48 would actually save money versus housing them in state. She said she doubted it could be done, especially when the cost of transportation is factored in.

The feds said housing Alaskans in out-of-state prisons contributed to the arrival of the 1488s, “a violent and ‘whites only’ prison-based gang,” when it brought charges against the gang for murder, drug distribution, firearms trafficking, assault and kidnapping.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, supported the change, noting that out-of-state prisoner housing has played a role in the development of Alaska’s crime.

“We know we’ve been facing a lot of public safety issues. Some very violent crimes were associated with members of gangs and we learned that those gang members came to Alaska after being housed in out-of-state facilities,” she said. “We should take the information we have learned and not do something that would compromise public safety and make sure that we can keep folks out of gangs and keep them here at home where can do a better job on rehabilitation.”

The capital budget contains about $16.7 million that would be released to the Department of Corrections as the state’s prison population grows thanks to steeper prison sentences approved by the Legislature earlier this year. The prison population is expected to grow beyond its current capacity, requiring the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center.

Even the Palmer Correctional Center is expected to hit capacity in a few years, raising the possibility that Alaska will need to consider new ways to House its prison population. To that end, the capital budget includes $10 million that is aimed at helping people deal with substance abuse disorders by building new drug addiction treatment beds.

Discussion on the operating budget is still ongoing as of posting. Stay tuned for more updates.

The vote

YEA: Kopp, Kreiss-Tomkins, LeBon, LeDoux, Lincoln, Merrick, Ortiz, Rasmussen, Spohnholz, Story, Stutes, Tarr, Thompson, Vance, Wilson, Wool, Zulkosky, Carpenter, Claman, Drummond, Fields, Foster, Hopkins, Jackson, Johnson, Johnston, Josephson, Knopp, Edgmon

NAY: Pruitt, Rauscher, Revak, Sullivan-Leonard, Tilton, Eastman

Excused: Neuman, Hannan, Shaw, Tuck

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