Alaska's prisons are overcrowded but generally provide better living conditions than those found in Lower 48 facilities, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said in a report released Monday.
The report says that while the Department of Corrections needs to work on overcrowding and better medical and mental health treatment, "the prison system in Alaska does many things right, especially relative to dysfunctional prison systems in other states."
The authors of the report interviewed more than 150 Alaska prisoners and worked with the Corrections Department in gathering other sources of information.
Prison overcrowding has led to sending 20 percent of prisoners out of state to a private prison. In the state, at its bursting-at-the-seams peak in 2007, overcrowding meant housing three people in a two-person cell and converting prison gyms into prison bunk rooms.
The department is building a 1,500-bed new prison at Point MacKenzie in Mat-Su to accommodate prisoners now housed Outside and more. The project is supposed to be done in 2012.
Other areas that need improvement, according to the ACLU:
• Too many people with substance abuse problems are put behind bars.
• Too many people, who are not dangerous, end up in the slammer because of overzealous prosecutors and harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The corrections department is in charge of 5,300 inmates, and supervises the one in 36 adults in Alaska who is either in jail, prison or on probation or parole.
In the early 2000s, Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration cut most of the department's rehabilitative programs. Current Commissioner Joe Schmidt, appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin in late 2006, has been slowly reintroducing the programs, like those for sex offenders and substance abusers. His reform measures have made him unpopular with some, especially the prison guard union.
But the ACLU says there should be more rehabilitation, particularly when it comes to Alaska Natives, who are 18 percent of the Alaska population but 36 percent of the prison population.
"We welcome audits," said Schmidt on Monday in reaction to the report. Schmidt has promised to cooperate with those who want to see the inner workings of the department.
"We are going to look at the report and if there are things there that we can responsibly do, that serve our mission, and they comply with being frugal and responsible with public money, we are going to do them," he said.
The report attributes some of the overcrowding to new mandatory minimum sentencing laws and an increase in prosecutions, despite a general decrease in crime rates. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of prosecutions in the state increased 20 percent while the crime rate decreased by 10 percent, the report says.
And while mandatory minimum sentencing laws may be popular with voters and show how lawmakers are tough on crime, the report points out that a 25-year minimum sentence translates into a "million-dollar sentence," because of the high costs of prisoner care - about $46,000 a year for a single inmate.
The report also says probation and parole officials are sending too many people back to prison on technicalities and clogging up the system. The number of prisoners held for probation and parole violations has more than tripled since 2002, the report says. Many are being locked up because they revert to drug or alcohol problems when they get out of prison. Four of every five prisoners has some kind of substance abuse problem.
As for the criticisms of the medical and mental health services in the prisons, Schmidt stands by the department's current practices.
Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.