Corrections union: Dunleavy administration is ‘endangering the public’ with bid to ship inmates Outside

(Photo by mitchell haindfield/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Alaska Correctional Officers Association pulled no punches in its response to the Dunleavy administration’s plans to ship inmates to Lower 48 prisons.

“Governor Dunleavy and Commissioner Dahlstrom are endangering the public, Correctional Officers, and inmates by manufacturing a staffing crisis in order to justify their ideological desire to privatize Corrections,” the group said in a scathing news release responding to news. “The Governor’s decision to send incarcerated Alaskans out-of-state to private prisons jeopardizes the safety of Alaskans. When inmates, previously warehoused in private prisons, returned to Alaska, it resulted in more crime and Alaska victims.”

The rebuttal disputes many of the claims put forward by Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom in a letter informing legislators that the state intends to move forward with plans to ship inmates to the Lower 48 instead of following the Legislature’s direction to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center.

Dahlstrom claims that reopening the Palmer Correctional Center would take too long and the state has no other option than to look Outside to house Alaska’s growing prisoner population. The population growth has been expected since the Legislature passed tougher criminal sentences in May, and the Legislature put aside $16 million specifically to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center.

In approving that funding, the Legislature specifically rejected language that would have allowed that money to be used to ship prisoners Outside. How the administration plans to pay for the contracts with Outside prisons is unclear, but Dunleavy requested $17 million in his February budget in order to restart the practice.

ACOA argues that the administration has been dead set on shipping inmates to the Lower 48, has never been interested in reopening the Palmer Correctional Center and has fabricated the current situation by holding off on hiring.

“The State tried to send inmates out of State earlier this year, but this proposal was rejected by the Alaska Legislature. This new excuse as to why the Administration ‘needs’ to send inmates outside is one of its own creation,” argues the group. “The DOC has not prioritized hiring or retaining Correctional Officers statewide, which has led to a Dunleavy Administration-created crisis. The DOC could start a hiring campaign tomorrow and, at minimum partially, open the Palmer Correctional Center within a couple months.”

According to ACOA, the state has 30 fewer correctional officers than when Dunleavy entered office.

ACOA President Randy McLellan also sent Dunleavy a lengthy letter outlining his concerns with how shipping inmates to Lower 48 prisons will impact public safety, including stories that showed how multiple violent gangs gained a foothold in Alaska through private prisons.

“As a Correctional Officer for 22 years, my thoughts on this subject are straightforward – please do not do this. This decision would undermine your public safety goals. Sending inmates out-of-state will break up families, increase recidivism, and endanger Alaskans,” he said. “When inmates were previously held outside of Alaska, they brought gangs and violence back with them.”

Legislators have been similarly disturbed by proposals to send inmates to Lower 48 prisons with weaker oversight, low-paid officers who are easily bribed and where violent gangs have a strong presence. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, likened it to a “crime university” and Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she was never shown anything by the administration that the practice would make Alaska safer or save any money.

Why it matters

The state is expected to put out a request for proposal next week with the goal of inking a three-year contract to ship inmates Outside in “early 2020.” The funding mechanisms for both the proposal and the multimillion-dollar contract are unclear and the Legislature could potentially refuse to fund whatever contract the administration inks.

Public safety unions have also tended to typically run more conservative than other unions, so the group’s anger over the proposal is particularly notable. It certainly has plenty of ammunition—such as the feds’ recent acknowledgment that the white supremacist 1448 gang got a foothold in Alaska through private prisons—to lobby tough-on-crime legislators.

ACOA also raises a number of important questions and holes in Dahlstrom’s argument that the state has no other option. Particularly, there should be scrutiny over what exactly the Department of Corrections has been up to since the legislation passed in May and was signed into law in July. Those are several months that the state could have been using to get the Palmer Correctional Center back online but instead the state has waited until October to announce it’s skirting the direction of the Legislature.

As we’ve said before, the administration’s dogged insistence on utilizing private prisons and former Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin’s connection to private prisons can’t be overlooked. Arduin’s last official day as a state employee was the same day the letter was released.

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