With legislators unlikely to approve funding for any contract sending prisoners Outside, Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom told legislators today the state has abandoned the plan and will, instead, pursue the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center and other means to house the state’s growing prisoner population.
Dahlstrom made the comments during a House State Affairs Committee meeting where legislators were considering House Bill 187, which would specifically ban the practice in nearly all cases. The legislation was brought by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields as a direct response to the administration’s plans and had the backing of several minority Republicans.
After the initial presentation, Juneau Rep. Andi Story was the first question Dahlstrom, asking why the state didn’t follow the legislative intent in last year’s to reopen Palmer Correctional Center.
“I have some information I would like to share with you today,” Dahlstrom replied. “Today, I’m announcing publicly—and you’re the first to hear—I have signed a notice of cancellation of that RFP (request for proposal). … I am not going to be awarding a contract.”
Dahlstrom said Alaska’s prison system is currently at 97.3 percent capacity following last year’s passage of House Bill 49, which put more people behind bars for longer with tougher sentences and more frequent use of prison time as a punishment. She said shipping inmates Outside was one option and that the department ultimately decided it can be managed in-state.
“From the beginning, the RFP was just one of the tools I was considering for the population management,” she said. “We have been consistently from the start looking at any and all viable alternate options.”
Even if the administration had pushed ahead with the RFP, it would have faced difficulty getting the Legislature to fund it. The Legislature set aside $16 million last year to handle the growing prison population, specifically earmarking it for the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center after rejecting several requests from the administration for money to ship inmates Outside.
On Wednesday, the issue was a hot topic in the budget-setting House Finance Committee. There, analysts for the Legislative Finance Division noted that the governor’s budget asked for a $16 million increase to ship prisoners Outside and a corresponding $16 million cut to the unspent Palmer Correctional Center budget.
Getting legislators to sign off on that plan, especially when they’re simultaneously considering legislation to ban the practice, was always going to be a near-impossible task.
Dahlstrom told legislators the state will work to house the additional prisoners with a new pilot reentry program, which will be initiated in about 90 days, and begin efforts to reopen the shuttered Palmer Correctional Center. She estimates that reopening the prison would be happening sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, but said there’s hope that it could be done even sooner.
Aside from mechanical issues that need attention at the prison, the department has faced staffing problems in recent years and currently has about 90 unfilled positions, about 10 percent of the department’s entire workforce. Palmer Correctional Center would require an additional 80 officers. Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, was skeptical about the ability of the state to get that many officers hired and trained time.
Dahlstrom said the department is beefing up its recruitment efforts and is currently offering a $5,000 signing bonus for new officers. She also said that some internal processes have changed in order to make hiring and training easier.
Palmer Republican Rep. George Rauscher’s district contains Palmer Correctional Center and he said the news was welcome.
“What we’ve heard today is good news. I want you to know that this is really good news,” he said, but added that he’s still concerned about the state’s lack of reentry and rehabilitation services.
The news didn’t blunt legislators’ interest in House Bill 187. It continue to take testimony on the bill and will push ahead with amendments, public testimony and potentially advancing it next week. It is scheduled to be heard next Tuesday at 3 p.m.
Alaska Correctional Officer Association business agent Joshua Wilson testified in support of the legislation. He joined many criminal justice experts, legislators and members of the public in likening private prisons to “crime university.”
“Private prisons do not save money,” he said. “They shift costs to the state.”
The legislation would ban both shipping inmates Outside and the use of private prisons. It has some exemptions, which would allow for prisoners to be transferred Outside if they need medical care not available in Alaska, if their family moves Outside and for purposes of extradition.