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Goose Creek prison almost ready for inmates

Lisa Demer
Work is winding down on facilities including this special management unit housing block at Goose Creek Correctional Center at Point MacKenzie. The prison, consisting of five buildings totaling 435,000 square feet, is scheduled to begin a phased opening with 30 medium-security inmates in March 2012.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Basketball courts are ready in the exercise yard.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Commissioner Joe Schmidt of the Department of Corrections discusses the new Goose Creek Correctional Center Nov. 3, 2011.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
The master control room affords a view of the yard and two main prison buildings at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Razor wire tops fences throughout the grounds at Goose Creek Correctional Center.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Two 12-foot-high fences fortified with spiky razor wire should intimidate would-be escapees. Eight hundred cameras inside and out will record movement. Armed officers will rove the perimeter 24/7.

The massive -- and controversial -- Goose Creek Correctional Center in the Mat-Su is complete and nearly ready for its first batch of prisoners.

Goose Creek can house 1,536 inmates and will be Alaska's biggest prison by far.

It's medium security. Most inmates will be allowed to walk unescorted from what officials call their dorms -- a modern version of a cell block -- to the prison post office, dining hall, clinic, barber shop, gym, classroom or prison job site such as the laundry or kitchen. Officials intend it to be a place where inmates are given opportunities for education, job training and rehabilitation and the chance to move about prison society as if it were a free society -- as long as they behave.

A tight perimeter is the key, said Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt.

"While you're in there, we want responsibility, we want movement, we want accountability," he said. "And we don't want you getting out."

State prison officials showed Goose Creek to reporters last week. A test group of 30 minimum security inmates will be transferred there around March, moving from dorm to dorm to make sure things like locks and plumbing work as intended.

A legislative audit of the project's costs, scope and location is under way.

If legislators approve money to run the prison, most of the 1,000-plus inmates now confined in a private prison in Hudson, Colo., eventually will be transferred to Goose Creek. A few may be parceled out to other Alaska prisons. Only a handful of Alaskans -- 18 or so -- will remain imprisoned out-of-state for medical or safety reasons.

BIG PRISON, BIG BUDGET

Goose Creek's price tag -- counting construction, project management, a water line, equipment and furnishings -- comes to about $250 million, according to figures provided by the borough and the state.

It's near Point MacKenzie, a sparsely populated but growing area of the borough, about 75 miles from Anchorage by road.

Using a 2004 state law intended to add prison space around the state, the Mat-Su Borough financed Goose Creek's construction and owns the facility. The partnership worked, according to Schmidt and borough officials.

"If you're going to have to build a prison, this is a good one," Schmidt said. Little change was needed from the original concept, he said. In one high security area, a catwalk was added so that officers could more quickly respond to a crisis.

Neeser Construction designed and built the prison under a contract worth $225 million out of a borough project budget totaling $243 million, according to Russ Krafft, Mat-Su Borough purchasing office.

The borough will lease the prison back to the state for $17.8 million a year.

On top of that, the department says Goose Creek will cost $35 million a year to run, and that's if it houses just 1,050 inmates, about the number now in Colorado. If it is full, the operating budget will be significantly higher, around $50 million per year.

It costs $23.5 million a year to house the inmates in Colorado.

"We never promised this to be a money saver," Schmidt said.

NO FRILLS

Goose Creek's security systems are state of the art, officials said. But nothing else is fancy about it.

The prison won't be decorated with public art. The borough doesn't have a 1 percent for the arts program.

Under a 1997 state law sponsored by then-Sen. Dave Donley, state prisons must be no frills. No free weights in the gym. No computers and no coffee pots in cells. No tobacco.

Common areas of Goose Creek's main housing units will have televisions. Inmates who are on the right track -- those with at least a high school equivalency who are working or otherwise spending their prison time productively -- will be able to buy their own 13-inch TV through the prison commissary. They can get basic cable in their cell if they pay for it themselves.

There's an electronic law library, a big room for visiting with family, a gym with basketball goals and space for weight machines that can be bought with proceeds from the commissary. Outdoors, there are basketball courts and ball fields.

Cells are Spartan. The general housing area consists of 10 dorms, each housing 128 men. Cells contain two metal bunks and little more. Nothing can go on the walls. Everything an inmate owns must fit inside an issued storage bin, to make for easier transfers.

In general housing, sinks, urinals and showers are in open, common areas. The toilets are cordoned off but have no doors. It's a balance between providing for human dignity and ensuring security, Schmidt said.

Besides space for 1,280 inmates in general housing, the prison has separate units for inmates in need of medical care and those who are disciplinary problems or especially dangerous. Inmates segregated for disciplinary or safety issues won't get free rein of the prison.

A special management unit will house inmates who are pretrial -- who always are considered higher security -- or who have some disciplinary issues. Cell doors there have slots so that officers will be able to handcuff inmates without being put at risk. These cells have a toilet and sink, because inmates will be locked in. Inmates will stay on the unit for meals and recreation. Medications will be brought to them.

"If we're mad at you, you'll probably be here, because you misbehaved," Schmidt said.

Even more restrictive are the maximum security units to segregate truly dangerous inmates or those "in the hole" for disciplinary infractions, Schmidt said. These are the inmates to fear, he said.

"This gives us a chance to separate them out and pull them away from people doing what they are supposed to," said Lee Sherman, deputy director of institutions for the department. He spent the past 4 1/2 years working on Goose Creek as a criminal justice planner.

Officers will be able to shackle inmates at both the wrists and ankles through door slots. Inmates will shower in a separate, locked room. If they need a law library, they'll be able to access an electronic one by computer, but they'll have to sit in a big cage on the unit to do it. They only will be let out of their cells an hour a day.

"This is the jail within the jail," Schmidt said.

UP AND RUNNING

If lawmakers approve the operating money, it'll take months to hire a staff of 347, including 245 correctional officers, officials said. Dozens of correctional officers at other prisons have volunteered to transfer over.

The department expects to begin bringing Alaskans home from Colorado in 2013. Inmates will travel on a U.S. Marshals Service-run plane that can handle 110 of them at a time at a cost of $250,000 to the state per trip.

The real benefit of the prison, Schmidt said, is having inmates closer to family. Some 95 percent eventually get out. He said those with jobs, housing and stable support systems stand a better chance of staying out.

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

Audio slide show: Corrections commissioner Joe Schmidt describes the facility
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News