House rejects Dunleavy’s proposal to ship 500 inmates Outside, still finds $24 million in cuts

Wildwood Correctional Center (Photo by Department of Corrections).

The latest version of the House budget rejects Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s proposal to ship some 500 inmates out of state, instead directing the Department of Corrections to better utilize substance abuse treatment, halfway homes and electronic monitoring.

The House budget proposal for the Department of Corrections comes in more than $5 million below Dunleavy’s proposal and more than $24 million under the status quo budget. It does so largely by shifting prisoners from traditional prison cells into community residential centers and onto electronic monitoring.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, the North Pole Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee and personally oversaw the corrections budget, said she was not particularly impressed by the administration’s inability to justify its budget proposals.

“We were never shown where those inmates might go. We didn’t even have a request for information. We’re not even sure where the numbers came from,” she said at Monday’s House Finance Committee meeting. “It was very concerning that we were closing down a prison that right now is very successful in what they do. Is there a way to keep individuals here, close to their families, close to having treatment and how could we possibly get more treatment?”

The governor’s proposal called for about $17.7 million for the out-of-state prison contracts, which typically go to private prisons, for a stated net savings of somewhere in the ballpark of $12 million. It also proposed closing a wing of the Wildwood Correctional Center to save $6 million, a move that was also rejected by the House committee.

The alternative

The House budget proposal specifically directs the Department of Corrections to move 400 inmates into community residential centers, where Wilson said services like substance abuse treatment and job training would be better delivered, and another 200 would be moved to electronic monitoring.

Funding for community residential centers would be increased by about $10.5 million under the House budget. Wilson said the combination of the two changes would result in a net savings of $24 million to the state.

Wilson was critical of the administration’s defense of the budget, noting the administration also didn’t have very many answers for a $1 million request for 10 additional video conferencing technicians. That request was also rejected.

“This was a very frustrating subcommittee meeting,” she said. “We couldn’t get a lot of answers.”

Why it matters

Alaska previously shipped inmates out of state to private, for-profit prisons until the 2012 opening of the Goose Creek Correctional Center in 2012 that allowed the state to bring home some 600 inmates who had been housed in Colorado.

The act of exporting prisoners has raised plenty of questions about policy and ethics.

The increased distances make it financially difficult—if not impossible—for families to visit prisoners in other states, cutting them off from support systems while also exposing them to prisoners—and gangs—from other states.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, at a recent hearing, likened it to “crime university.”

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization doing reporting on criminal justice, highlighted this issue in a 2016 story that told the story about how it cost a Hawaii woman more than $2,000 to visit her boyfriend and nephew at a correctional center in Arizona.

The story highlighted studies that show inmates who can maintain connections with families are less likely to commit new crimes:

Repeated studies have found that prisoners who maintain close ties with family, friends and others from home are far less likely to commit another crime. One Western Criminology Review study in 2006 called it “a remarkably consistent association.” A 2007 study in which the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction analyzed its own inmates concluded that the more visits they received, the less they broke prison rules. A similar study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 2011 concluded that remaining connected to life outside prevented the inmates from “assuming a criminal identity.”

“Any time you move inmates away from the people who can support them, away from where they’re going to actually re-enter society, I have to say it is flat-out correctional malpractice,” said Kevin Kempf, director of the Idaho Department of Correction, which had been shipping inmates out of state since 1997 until bringing them all home last month.

The same story also highlighted how the distance makes it difficult for state officials to maintain oversight over the facilities, a problem particularly when it comes to private, for-profit prisons.

The House also deleted language that would have allowed the Office of Management and Budget to shift money around as they saw fit, which would block the governor from shifting funds to fund the out-of-state transfer anyways.

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