Former prison guard tells of fending off attack with knife he was fired over

ldemer@adn.comApril 13, 2013 

Kim Spalding, Corrections Officer

Studio on Thursday, March 28, 2013. Spalding, corrections officer, was attached by three inmates at Spring Creek and fought back with a pocket knife. Spalding was fired for having a pocket knife. 130328

BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News Buy Photo

Last Oct. 24, a few hours into his shift at Alaska's only maximum security prison, correctional officer Kim Spalding ordered inmates under his watch into lockdown. A ruckus had erupted on another unit. He needed to assert control. His bunch had been unruly just the day before.

But within the Spring Creek Correctional Center housing mod where Spalding was the lone officer managing up to 64 prisoners, some of the inmates rebelled.

Alaska State Troopers reported at the time that Spalding was attacked first by one inmate, then two more. He ended up cut, bruised and battered. He was treated in the hospital as were two of the inmates.

The terse trooper report from last year didn't mention how Spalding fended off three attackers. The officer himself is now revealing what happened: He stabbed his attackers with a pocketknife he had sneaked in to protect himself.

Having the knife violated Corrections Department policy, which led to his firing, just two days shy of the 20 years of public service needed for a full pension, he said. With the help of his union, he's fighting the termination. The union contends that systemwide staffing issues are compromising the safety of Alaska's prisons.

Spalding worked at Spring Creek for 51/2 years. He describes himself as tough on rule-breaking inmates. He said he thought hard before deciding to disregard a prison policy himself.

"This was not a light decision for me," said Spalding, 45. "I went basically 41/2 years without carrying a pocketknife at all -- when I knew of sergeants, senior officers" who did so.

Had he not had a knife at the ready, Spalding said, "I would have been either killed or pretty well maimed. I don't think they would have stopped until people got there to stop them."

He said he's speaking out now because he doesn't think he's receiving a fair shake from the department.

This account is mainly based on Spalding. Because his termination is being challenged, the Department of Corrections says it can't confirm even basic facts about the attack or events leading up to it. The department rejected a public records request for reports on what happened.

Troopers aren't commenting either. They referred possible charges against the inmates to prosecutors in Kenai. That's still under review, said Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders, who declined to discuss what charges had been referred or whether Spalding's knife defense complicated matters.

Bryan Brandenburg, the corrections department's director of institutions, said he knew of no issues with Spalding's performance before the October incident but he could not speak in any detail about the former officer because of the pending personnel case. Most correctional officers are professionals dedicated to a difficult job, he said.

 

NO GUNS OR KNIVES

Inside prisons, correctional officers generally work unarmed except for their self-defense training, a canister of pepper spray and a radio with a "man-down," or panic, button.

They are barred from carrying guns, batons, Tasers or knives. They can't have cellphones either because of the security risk should an inmate get hold of one. Only specially designated security officers, such as those who drive around the prison perimeter and those in the watch tower, are armed. Inmates vastly outnumber officers and even an armed guard could be overpowered, officials say. In a housing mod, it's standard for one officer to be alone with 64 inmates.

"Employee personal property represents a threat to the safe and secure operation of a correctional facility if the item(s) fell into inmate hands," department policy says. The list of banned items includes "tools or knives of any kind, unless approved by the superintendent."

Somehow, once the prisoners realized that Spalding had a knife and was using it, they backed off and didn't try to wrest it away, he said.

Before he became a correctional officer, Spalding worked three years as a police officer for the University of Alaska Anchorage and more than a dozen with the North Slope Borough.

In 2003, as a North Slope officer stationed in Wainwright, he shot and killed a 19-year-old who pointed a rifle at him, according to news reports from the time.

Spalding said the young man was suicidal and had a history of dangerous behavior. That September the man first aimed a rifle at relatives, then at Spalding. Spalding said he tried to shield himself with his Ford Expedition but the man chased him around the vehicle with the rifle. After a trooper investigation, the shooting was ruled justifiable, Spalding said. Court records show no charges were brought.

A longtime Alaskan, Spalding was a basketball standout at Kenai Central High School and played for the short-lived Alaska Pacific University team. He's a lean 6 foot 6 inches. He sports a strikingly long, curlicue mustache.

At Spring Creek, Spalding received good performance reviews. His most recent one, from February 2012, said he "treats supervisors, co-workers and prisoners with fairness and respect."

 

ANGER OVER HOME BREW

Spalding said he was a stickler for rules, which didn't make him a favorite among inmates. In December 2011, he was assigned to a housing module and told to "clean it up." He searched cells and wrote up inmates who had contraband items.

"Prisons are full of predators and prey," Spalding said. "The predators are going to say, 'Hey, I like your shoes.' And the prey has to give it to them." If the inmate who lost his shoes complains to authorities, he's beaten up, Spalding said.

Prison staff protect the public from the criminals -- and the inmates from each other, he said.

Six inmates in his housing mod ended up in punitive "segregation" his first week there, he said. Some made threatening comments after that, other officers told him. He started carrying a pocketknife. He wasn't alone, he said. Even one of the prison's ranking administrators once asked to borrow a knife from an officer.

"It seemed to me that it was OK to have a knife in the institution," Spalding said.

Not so, said Brandenburg, the director of institutions. Knives must be pre-approved for a specific job, such as mail clerk, he said.

After a few weeks, Spalding was moved out of the housing mod and went back to his usual rotation of assignments: control room, security rover, kitchen, housing.

In October 2012, Spalding was assigned to another housing mod. In the laundry room, he found home brew, a fermented alcoholic concoction called pruno. In the old days it was made with prunes but now inmates use oranges and grapefruits, mixing in bread, dough or, if they can get it, yeast.

Inmates were upset that he confiscated their alcohol. The leader of a prison gang called The Low Lives said to him, "Let's do this." Spalding said he thought it was a challenge to fight but now thinks it was a call for others to go at him. Maybe 10 inmates surrounded him but he was able to calm the situation. The instigator was locked into his cell, then pepper sprayed by other officers when he resisted being hauled to segregation, Spalding said.

Spalding asked two supervisors if he could keep his unit in lockdown the next day, each man in his cell, or at least the 10 involved. They checked with the administration and told him no.

Brandenburg said officers always can put their units in lockdown first, and then talk with a supervisor to make sure it's justified.

 

'I AM DEAD'

The next day, Oct. 24, Spalding's shift started at 6 a.m. He was busy with reports from the prior incident. He talked with the deputy superintendent about what charge the ringleader might face.

Sometime after 9 a.m., a call came in about trouble elsewhere in Spring Creek.

When Spalding ordered inmates into lockdown, most went to their cells. One refused. "Let's do this," the inmate said to him, the same phrase used the day before.

Spalding figured an attack was coming and tried to leave. The inmate, a muscular 22-year-old serving seven years for robbery and assault, got between him and the door. (Spalding identified the inmates involved but because none have been charged, the Daily News is not using their names.)

They stared at each other. Then the inmate punched him in the head, Spalding said. Spalding tried again for the door.

"About that time, someone jumps me on the back or someone hits me from behind, I'm not sure what. But there was contact," Spalding said.

A tornado of fighting men lurched toward the locked door.

"I'm getting hit, punched, stuff like that, the whole time," Spalding said. A third inmate joined in. "If I don't do something now, I am dead," Spalding remembers thinking.

He was pressed against a glass wall as he fished for his knife.

"I finally get it out, I open it, I turn and then just start thrusting at anything that moved," Spalding said.

He remembers falling to the floor. "They are putting the boots to me."

The attack seemed to go on forever but lasted less than a minute, he said.

"One of them said, 'Hey guys, he's got a knife,' " and the inmates backed off, Spalding said. He got up. Everything was red from blood running into his eyes.

He rang the buzzer and the control room officer opened the door. Other officers arrived about that time.

"A Correctional Officer was assaulted by a small group of inmates in a housing unit at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward," the Corrections Department said in a brief statement released the next day. "The officer was able to call for assistance."

Spalding said he didn't call for help. He couldn't get on his radio and never pushed his panic button, which he said is tiny and hard to find in a crisis.

He also never used his pepper spray. He doesn't think it would have worked on hyped-up prisoners and it could have misted him as well as the inmates, he said.

But Brandenburg, the head of institutions, said "it's very effective." While inmates can continue to resist when being sprayed, they "very quickly become subdued and ask to be restrained and taken to the shower."

The attack, Spalding said, was planned.

He ended up with two black eyes, bruising all over, stitches on his head and his thumb -- he might have cut himself in that last spot.

Troopers said the instigating inmate wasn't hurt but the other two and the officer were taken to hospitals.

On Nov. 16, Spalding was notified that he was fired.

 

PRISON DANGERS

Brad Wilson, business manager for the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, said Alaska prisons are growing increasingly dangerous for officers. The union attributes the problem to staffing shortages and schedule changes; state officials dispute that there is a problem.

Safety is always a top issue, Brandenburg said, but "everything typically runs very smoothly." Behavior problems tend to pop up soon after an arrest, not after an individual has been sentenced and knows the prison routine, he said.

In September 2012 at the Anchorage jail, a rookie officer was knocked out after an inmate punched him in the head from behind, according to a state account. The officer, who had not yet gone through the training academy, suffered a broken jaw and concussion, the union said.

Statewide in 2012, the Corrections Department counted 37 assaults on staff by inmates. As of April 3, there have been 11 assaults this year.

The union is fighting the state over a scheduling change that puts some officers on an eight-hour shift, and others on more desirable 12-hour shifts with a week on, week off. Officers don't work as cohesively in teams when they have different schedules and aren't always familiar with others on their shift, according to the union.

Brandenburg said the change came after a 2010 legislative audit found staffing deficiencies. The new, blended system allows higher levels of staffing most of the day, with lower levels overnight, he said.

As of October, when the knife incident occurred, Spring Creek had 346 inmates and 104 security staff members, down significantly from its maximum of 557 inmates. The state had transferred 30 officers and 211 inmates to the new Mat-Su prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center. It since has moved dozens more inmates. As of the end of March, Spring Creek had 306 inmates and 102 security staff members, Brandenburg said.

After the incident, Brandenburg said, the department asked superintendents and training officers to make sure all employees were familiar with the policy on personal property.

Spalding said he doesn't regret bringing a knife into the prison. "That thing was there for one purpose, to save my life, which it did," he said.

 

 


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 

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