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Alaska Prisoners in Exile

I would like to respond to a News in Brief segment of your February 1995 issue of PLN concerning the shipment of Alaska state prisoners to the Penal Detention Center [a private prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America] in Florence, AZ, supposedly to ease overcrowding and avoid fines levied by the court for violating population caps.

Briefly, some history... Prior to 1988, Alaska had no facilities for housing long-term felons, and the DOC routinely shipped prisoners with ten years or more to serve on their sentences to prisons outside of Alaska. Most, like myself, were designated to federal prisons, although some went to other state's facilities in accordance with the Western Interstate Compact Agreement.

This policy of exile for long-term prisoners ended in 1988, with the completion of the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. Spring Creek, Alaska's only maximum security prison, was built in response to a 1986 Partial Settlement Agreement (Cleary, et al. v. Smith, et al., 3AN-81-5274 Civ.) in which the DOC agreed to return all Alaska state prisoners in federal custody who desired to return. This was the same agreement containing population caps that the DOC was found to be violating and was fined $5,500 per day.

As noted in your News in Brief, the DOC originally claimed that the prisoners slated for transfer to Florence, AZ, were sex offenders who had refused treatment, who had bombed out of treatment, or who had sentences too long to be treated now. In reality, only a small number of the 207 prisoners sent to AZ fit this category. Most of them are the same long-term prisoners, convicted of murder, robbery, assault, fraud, etc. who would have been exiled under the past policy. Indeed approximately 170+ of the prisoners now in AZ came from the Spring Creek prison and many of the beds that became available are now being filled with medium security, short and medium term prisoners.

The DOC also claimed that these transfers were a "temporary" measure necessary to ease overcrowding, but the transfers barely bring the DOC into compliance with the agreed population caps, while the Department's own estimates are that 225+ new prisoners will be entering the system during the next year. Where are those prisoners going to be housed? It is true that the DOC and the city of Anchorage have conducted public hearings on the construction of a combination jail/prison facility, but, even if approved, that facility is still 3-5 years out. It doesn't take a rocket scientists to figure out that the next 3-5 years will add an estimated 675-1,125 new prisoners to the system, so any facilities made available in that time are already over-booked! [Editor's Note: According to data published in Corrections Compendium, Alaska has $0 budgeted for prison construction in its 1994-95 budget, and the AK DOC's own projection of prison population increases are: 1996, 12.86% over the current population of 3,329; 1998, 43.74% over the current population; 2000, 68.91% increase over the current population. That means within five years Alaska will have to build prison beds for an additional 2,294 prisoners. So the question of where these prisoners will be housed looms large.]

The truth is that the DOC has once again established a process to banish long-term prisoners thousands of miles from their families and communities, a process they will not relinquish without force of another court action such as Cleary. I also believe that the prisoners who have already been shipped to AZ will not return until their sentences are completed, or the Corrections Corporation of America deems it more costly than profitable to keep them. Further, I suspect that the next word on this matter from the DOC will be to express a need to increase the number of prisoners that may be shipped out of state.

Face it, placing long-term prisoners in private owned prisons is cheaper than building, operating, and maintaining new maximum security prisons in Alaska. [Editor's Note: According to 1993 Dept. of Justice figures, AK has the highest "cost per prisoner" operating expenses of any of the 50 states. According to more recent data published in Corrections Compendium Alaska is second only to Hawaii.] Sending prisoners to out-of-state prisons also allows the citizenry to return to that comfortable "out of sight out of mind" mentality; the politicians get to add "exile" to their repertoire of punishments, together with already notoriously long presumptive and mandatory minimum sentences; and the DOC gets to bail out of some current litigation, and avoid future actions, concerning in-state conditions including, its failure to promulgate regulations in accordance with the Cleary Settlement Agreement and departmental structure, the lack of educational and vocational programming, and its general failure to rehabilitate, because those with enough time to actually litigate such issues can now be shipped to confused jurisdictions far from ombudsmen, court monitors, and legal counsel.

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