New Goose Creek prison experiences growing pains

zhollander@adn.comNovember 3, 2013 

POINT MacKENZIE -- Alaska's newest prison is huge. And it's already almost full.

Goose Creek Correctional Center opened last year and now houses about 1,300 inmates -- convicted murderers to low-level drug users, sentenced serial sexual predators to guys still waiting for their day in court.

All of them are Alaskans, many brought home from a private facility in Colorado.

But even as officials with the Alaska Department of Corrections applaud the return of Alaska's prisoners, Goose Creek faces a daunting set of challenges as it gets up and running.

The new prison remains short on correctional officers, who are contending with a larger-than-expected population of unpredictable pretrial inmates not yet sentenced.

Prison staff, meanwhile, have responded to more than a dozen incidents involving unruly inmates and other disturbances serious enough to merit immediate or next-day notification to higher-ups within the Corrections Department. They included two assaults on correctional officers, a brawl involving a half-dozen prisoners, and an inmate who attempted suicide with a razor.

The $240 million prison was built on the premise that Alaska's inmates belong at home. But some prisoners here say they get less time with family now than they did at prisons in Arizona or Colorado.

The challenges at Goose Creek are growing pains, part of getting such a large system up to speed, said Bryan Brandenburg, the state's director of institutions.

"We're not yet completely staffed and hopefully I won't be completely full," Brandenburg said after a prison tour with the Daily News on Oct. 23. "There's lots of bumps and adjustments that are made along the way. A large majority of what you heard, I think as we go down the road, a lot of that stuff is going to get fixed."

PROBLEM PRISONERS

A 22-year-old Goose Creek inmate punched a correctional officer in the face in late February, according to a correction report. State corrections officials redacted the names of the inmate and staff in the report

The prisoner, told he needed to stay put for an inmate count on Feb. 24, said he needed to use the bathroom and ignored the order, according to an account from the injured officer. The officer told him he'd go to segregation if he didn't comply. The inmate cussed at him.

The officer called a sergeant for backup because the inmate refused to lock down, his account said. The sergeant and another officer ordered the inmate out of the cell for a talk. He stepped out but then started screaming and cussing at the first officer.

"At this point the inmate jumped violently forward and punched me in the face knocking me back," the officer wrote.

Three officers took the inmate to the ground, the report said. He kept struggling -- kicking at the officers and writhing around to free his arms -- so one officer pepper-sprayed him in the face. They put him in handcuffs and leg irons and took him to segregation, the report said.

The injured officer got treatment at the prison medical department for cuts on his nose, finger and neck, according to a memo included with the report.

The prison notified the Alaska State Troopers about the incident. Officials put the entire facility on lockdown and canceled visiting for the day.

The incident was the first of two attacks on correctional officers at Goose Creek this year, according to prison and state officials.

BRAWL ERUPTS

In the second, a correctional officer was kicked in the leg following a June 29 brawl, according to an account included in a report filed after the fight. The fight, in the special-management unit, involved six prisoners and sent one to the hospital.

Inmates had gathered in a cell for a "group meeting of gang members" that was captured on surveillance video, according to summaries from several officers included in the report. Two inmates got into a fight in a cell as several others held the door shut. Another prisoner pushed his way in and the brawl eventually moved outside the cell to a phone bank, with one prisoner wielding a cafeteria tray and a chair, the report said. Correctional officers put the unit on lockdown and moved several inmates to segregation.

A sergeant was kicked in the leg as he helped move an inmate to segregation, according to the report.

One inmate was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center for treatment of his injuries.

The two officer assaults are among 13 special incident reports filed by prison staff this year, Brandenburg said in an email. The others he classified as "altercations/arguments and minor assaults between inmates."

During the week of Oct. 14, a prisoner made a suicide attempt, state corrections officials said. They provided few other details except to say the inmate used a razor.

The prisoner received the appropriate medical attention and psychiatric care, Brandenburg said. Prison staff receive what he called "extensive training" in suicide prevention and do "a fantastic job" preventing most attempts.

"People are sneaky," he said. "You don't catch all of them."

STILL HIRING

Goose Creek is a medium-security prison. Double fences topped with razor wire surround the perimeter. Eight hundred camerasmonitor inmates.

Inside the fences, general population inmates move around fairly freely. During recreational time in the prison yard in late October, inmates walked a track, played basketball, did pushups and chatted with correctional officers.

The prison is nearing the limits of what state officials consider its maximum capacity of 1,472 inmates. The state airlifted about 950 inmates from Hudson, Colo., in groups of 100 during the last year and a half. Fewer than 20 Alaskan prisoners remain Outside due to security or other concerns, prison officials say.

The number of correctional officers, however, still lags behind prison goals.

Goose Creek still needs to hire 40 to 50 more correctional officers, Brandenburg said. The prison is looking for more experienced officers, according to a state jobs posting.

Goose Creek currently has 170 correctional officers plus other employees in non-security positions, according to figures provided by the state. The prison's full staffing target is 223 correctional officers, plus another 140 other employees in other programs.

CONCERNS ABOUT RATIO

The prison's ratio of correctional officers to inmates is a matter of contention for the Alaska Correctional Officers Union, which maintains that Goose Creek, along with all of the state's jails and prisons, is dangerously understaffed.

The state's numbers overstates the number of officers working security at Goose Creek, Brad Wilson, the union's business manager, said in an email.

Only a quarter of those 170 officers on the roster are working at any given time because the officers work in four shifts, Wilson said. Of those on duty, some are doing paperwork and other non-security functions.

During the tour, 118 men temporarily locked two to a cell in a special-management unit peered out through doors and windows at the visitors. The unit functions as a time-out for unruly inmates not guilty of major violations. It's also the transition area for newly arrived pretrial prisoners.

Two correctional officers staffed the unit. Brandenburg said there was also a probation officer and a counselor.

The inmate-to-officer ratios are based on workload, he said. "This is staffed appropriate for the level of supervision required for this inmate population."

There's no official standard yet, however; the state was still developing minimum manning numbers for Goose Creek as of late October.

A NEW NORMAL

The inmates at Goose Creek aren't divided by their crimes. Instead, they're separated according to custody level, which is based on behavior.

Brandenburg said his goal is "normalizing" the prison experience.

"It functions more as a community-type setting to help acclimate people to normal functioning," he said. "You've got to get up to get your food, you've got to get up to go to your medical appointment, to your job and to your program."

Inside, the prison has an industrial feel, with gray concrete floors and unadorned white walls. Along with the special-management unit, there's a high security segregation unit that houses dangerous or rule-breaking inmates.

The biggest segment of the population lives in general housing. They get to eat in the dining hall, work jobs around the prison, get a haircut at the barber shop and go to a post office or medical unit. The state offers programs for anger management, substance abuse and vocational training.

About 90 prisoners work in the kitchen, a gleaming, wide-open space that's the largest commercial kitchen in the state. An industrial steamer cooks vegetables, part of the state's plan to limit fried food at the prison.

Hamburgers and chicken top the favorites list, says Rick Clark, the prison's food service foreman. He ran apprenticeship programs for inmates at Palmer Correctional Center and Mat-Su Pretrial Facility and plans to start one at Goose Creek.

GLUT OF PRETRIAL

Even as the state continues to hire more correctional officers, Goose Creek is dealing with an unexpectedly high number of pretrial inmates who are considered higher security.

The prison was built to house mostly sentenced inmates, generally a more stable population than the antsy, frustrated, sometimes angry new offenders who haven't been sentenced yet and may be new to prison life.

But with Anchorage and Mat-Su jails overflowing, Goose Creek's population this month included about 300 pretrial inmates, 200 from Anchorage and 100 from Mat-Su.

Despite the state's intention to bring Alaskans home, some inmates say they see their relatives less at Goose Creek than they did at prisons in Colorado and Arizona.

Moving prisoners closer to home was a mantra of state corrections officials trying to convince wary lawmakers and the public of Goose Creek's larger value. It costs $50 million a year to operate Goose Creek, twice the cost of the private prison in Hudson, Colo., where most of the inmates were lodged before getting flown back to Alaska.

Proximity to family is also part of prisoner rehabilitation.

A prison policy limits most visits to one hour. Prison officials say that's the only way to accommodate a deluge of weekend visitors in the prison visiting room. People who come during the week might get more time, prison officials say.

It takes 90 minutes to get to Goose Creek from Anchorage, 75 miles away by road. Inmates have complained that with a one-hour visiting period on weekends, visitors spend more time driving than visiting. Some have said they had longer visits in other prisons.


 

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com.

 

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