Dunleavy’s capital budget would reopen doors to sending inmates to Outside private prisons

Palmer Correctional Center (Photo by Department of Corrections).

The Dunleavy administration and the Office of Management and Budget under Donna Arduin have repeatedly asked the Legislature for permission to start shipping Alaska’s inmates off to private, for-profit prisons in the Lower 48.

The Legislature, citing concerns about costs and public safety, has repeatedly and specifically rejected this at every turn this year, but that hasn’t discouraged the administration, which hasn’t given up on a practice that one senator likened to sending inmates to “crime university.”

Today, in the Senate Finance Committee hearing on the governor’s proposal for a capital budget, senators noticed a line in Senate Bill 2002 that would repeal part of the partially funded capital budget that was signed into law just last week: “* Sec. 9.  Section 14, ch. 3, FSSLA 2019 is repealed.”

Paloma Harbour, OMB’s budget director, stumbled at the question, initially giving the senators an incorrect explanation of its purpose. Another official stepped in to say that it targeted the language that released funding for the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Facility in a stepped approach dependent on the growth of the prisoner population.

No explanation as to why the language needed to be repealed, and the senators didn’t ask for elaboration during a meeting that was already packed with other attempts to understand the administration’s reasoning behind the legislation.

It was Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal, who’s become a better and more transparent source of information on the governor’s proposals than the governor’s own team, who said told senators that the language does more than just repeal the contingency language.

“The money couldn’t be used for anything except the Palmer Correctional Facility. The change in the bill now is the that the $16 million has no conditions on it. The Department of Corrections gets that money regardless of population or prisoner count,” he said. “There’s a structural change as well. Instead of being limited to reopening the Palmer Correctional Facility, it’s simply put into management of inmate population. It can be used for anything within that appropriation, including out-of-state prisoner movements.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, the Anchorage Democrat who’s called such a practice “crime university” earlier this year, asked if it would cover private prisons.

“If that repealer language stays, would it allow the Department of Corrections to shift prisoners to out-of-state private prisons or in-state private prisons for that matter?” he asked.

“It would,” Teal said.

The administration didn’t mention such a possibility, but there’s reason to think it could what’s in mind.

Why it matters

There’s been plenty of scrutiny leveled at Dunleavy’s hire of Donna Arduin, who’s made a career out of moving from state to state to slash budgets for Republican governors, to oversee the state’s budget.

Chief among those concerns is Arduin’s history of working with private prison company GEO Group (one of the group’s spinoffs was the one that got the controversial no-bid award to run the Alaska Psychiatric Institute). Along her budget-cutting trail, The Center for Media and Democracy has outlined how, according to a Washington Post summary of the report, “legislation favorable to GEO Group has shadowed Arduin’s presence in government from California to Florida.”

The administration has not been particularly forthcoming to the Legislature to justify its desire to begin shipping inmates to Lower 48 private prisons, a practice that was halted in the last decade.

Now-former House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, spearheaded the last effort to reject the administration’s attempts to ship inmates Outside. In a floor speech, she said that the administration had done nothing to justify its position and she was concerned that it would make Alaska less safe in the long run after talking with inmates who had experienced being housed out of state.

“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.”

The stories aren’t just talk but are reflected in recent criminal charges filed against a violent white supremacist gang that gained a foothold in Alaska.

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.

“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,” explained the announcement of the arrests.

If the Legislature remains consistent, it should remove the repeal language immediately and keep the administration’s hopes of shipping inmates to for-profit prisons—a practice nearly everyone says could cost more while making Alaska less safe—out of the realm of reality.

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