Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom notified legislators in a letter Tuesday that the state is moving ahead with plans to send inmates to prisons in the Lower 48 despite legislators’ concerns that such a move would only harden criminals.
Dahlstrom argues that the move is required because the state’s prisoner population has spiked thanks to changes passed in this year’s House Bill 49, which reinstated tougher criminal sentences sending more people to prison for longer. The legislation had envisioned the state would reopen the Palmer Correctional Center to meet the demand for beds.
Still, it somehow appears that the administration has been blindsided by the increase in the prisoner population. Dahlstrom argues that the 12-month timeframe to bring the Palmer Correctional Center online is too slow of a response to a bill that passed in late April 2019.
“The alternative option discussed during the legislative session to reopen Palmer Correctional Center was not viable as it would have taken at least 12 months to bring online and would require an additional 70 correctional officers be hired,” wrote Dahlstrom. “Therefore, the Department is confident that this request is the most immediate way to address our imminent population increase within DOC.”
Her letter says that the department hopes to begin transferring inmates to the private prisons by “early 2020.” The contracts would be good for three years with an option to extend them.
The state has already seen the prisoner population grow by 250 inmates since the law was signed by Dunleavy, according to Dahlstrom’s letter. Dahlstrom says the state’s prison system has already reached 97 percent capacity.
To handle the additional inmates, the Legislature approved more than $16 million in funding for the state to reopen the Palmer Correctional Facility, which had been closed in 2016, this year.
Even budget-hawk legislators said the increased costs were acceptable if it meant a safer Alaska.
Legislators also specifically rejected any language that would have allowed the $16 million to be used for anything other than reopening the Palmer Correctional Center. Exactly how they’re circumventing the budget passed by the Legislature is unclear.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, stiffly opposed sending inmates Outside and led the charge on removing it from the House version of the operating budget, which ultimately became the version that passed.
At the time, Wilson argued that the administration hadn’t proved how shipping inmates Outside would be cheaper or safer for Alaska. She said after talking to inmates had been housed Outside, she was deeply concerned about the proposal.
“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 savings are indeed questionable. The cost to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center are about $16 million per year. The state’s initial request to send 500 inmates Outside was $17 million.
Both research and recent experience shows that shipping inmates to private prisons far from home makes it far more difficult for prisoners to successfully reenter their communities without committing new crimes. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, likened to a “crime university” at a hearing earlier this year.
And it’s not just about petty crimes, either.
When federal authorities brought charges against the 1488s, “a violent and ‘whites only’ prison-based gang” implicated in murder, drug distribution, firearms trafficking, assaults and kidnapping, they said the group gained a foothold in Alaska through the state’s out-of-state prisoner program.
“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.
Still, the administration has long had its eyes on shipping inmates Outside.
The initial budget proposed by Gov. Dunleavy in February asked for that $17 million to begin sending inmates out of state. The inclusion of the request, which was regularly reinserted by the administration, drew raised eyebrows because the budget was put together by former Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Adruin, who has connections to private prison companies.
Why it matters
Sending inmates far from home is bad policy and, as legislators have pointed out, it’s particularly bad policy if you are looking to save money or reduce crime. The move also flouts the Legislature’s clear direction that the money should be used to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center and nothing else.
The Legislature didn’t give the administration a set of options on this issue, but it appears that the state sees it that way anyways. Hopefully legislators get an answer on this and hold the administration accountable.
It’s unclear why the state would be so insistent on pushing ahead with inking contracts with Outside prisons, but it’s hard to ignore the connections between former OMB Director Arduin and private prison companies.
Also, remember that all contracts are subject to state appropriation.