Crime University: House capital budget also could send inmates to Lower 48 prisons

Palmer Correctional Center (Photo by Department of Corrections).

Update: During the current floor debate on the capital budget, Rep. Tammie Wilson offered an amendment that would remove the “out-of-state facilities” from the legislation. The amendment passed 29-6 to remove the language. 

The inclusion of $10 million for the construction of new drug treatment facilities in under-served areas of Alaska grabbed our attention when a new version of the capital budget rolled out on Tuesday. With the Legislature looking to get tough on crime it’s smart to go after the root cause of much of Alaska’s property crimes, but a new line in the budget is raising red flags.

The House Finance Committee’s version of the capital budget includes funding that would allow the Department of Corrections to restart the controversial practice of housing Alaska’s inmates in private out-of-state prisons.

The language is attached to the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center, a move that’s been expected thanks to the passage of this year’s crime bill. It allocates $16.7 million “for the costs of reopening the Palmer Correctional Center and housing prisoners in out-of-state facilities” from the earnings from Power Cost Equalization Fund, though it would not affect payouts under the program.

The funding would come in stages only if the state’s prison population grows as expected.

The crime bill passed earlier this year is expected to grow Alaska’s prison population far beyond its current capacity, requiring the reopening of the shuttered Palmer Correctional Facility. The projected growth is even expected to outgrow the additional capacity at the Palmer Correctional Facility within a few years.

Even with the pressing capacity problems, legislators have been generally opposed to restarting the practice of sending inmates Outside. Earlier this year, they even rejected a line in Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s proposed operating budget that would have sent as many as 500 inmates to for-profit prisons in the Lower 48.

Research shows it makes it more difficult for inmates to rehabilitate because it often makes it prohibitively expensive for families to visit, an important part in maintaining connections to the world outside of prison. But more importantly, it’s often been called way for Lower 48 crime and gangs to get into Alaska.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, likened it to “crime university” in a hearing earlier this year, calling it a “terrible idea.”

And it’s not just talk.

Federal authorities brought charges against the 1488s, “a violent and ‘whites only’ prison-based gang,” earlier this year for the gruesome murder of one of its members (as well as drug distribution, firearms trafficking, assault and kidnapping). In the announcement, the feds said the group gained a foothold in the state through Alaskan inmates incarcerated in the Lower 48.

“The indictment further alleges the 1488 gang was established in approximately 2010 within the Alaska Department of Corrections and by Alaskan inmates incarcerated within the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Arizona Department of Corrections through interstate compact agreements,” explains the announcement.

Another potential problem with the funding is that the money for reopening the Palmer Correctional Facility and/or sending prisoners to out-of-state prisons would come out of the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, which was intended to spin out money for the Power Cost Equalization program and the Community Assistance.

The capital budget was due on the House floor on Tuesday, but the session was delayed. The House faces the daunting task of needing a three-quarter vote for the legislation and also needs support from the Senate for it to be approved ahead of the end of the special session on Friday.

We’ve heard that the out-of-state prisoner housing has caught the attention of the Senate and could be causing problems.

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