Kotzebue jail closed to state prisoners over fund shortage

Kyle Hopkins

Saying state funding for the Kotzebue jail is unfairly low, Kotzebue city officials are refusing to allow the Department of Corrections to hold inmates at their local jailhouse.

The jail is one of the busiest in rural Alaska. It normally houses inmates arrested by state troopers in neighboring Northwest Alaska villages until the suspects make their first court appearance.

But the city lawyer claims Kotzebue has lost more than $1 million subsidizing the jail over the past seven years and the city is demanding additional funding from the state. In a Sept. 19 letter to the commissioners of Corrections and Public Safety, City Manager Derek Martin called the funding "inequitable, disparate and discriminatory" and said the city would close the jail to state inmates from Dec. 1 through Jan. 31.

The move has forced the state to find other places to house defendants at state expense. The closure will resume indefinitely beginning June 30 if the funding problem isn't resolved, Martin wrote.

Guided by a series of audits, the Department of Corrections says it is working to determine exactly how much the state ought to be paying to run the Kotzebue jail and 14 other so-called community jails the state uses to temporarily hold prisoners across Alaska.

"We don't believe that we are discriminating against any one jail," said Leslie Houston, director of administrative services for the Corrections Department. She said she's optimistic the two sides can reach a resolution by mid-February.

"It can't happen soon enough for the city of Kotzebue but everybody is trying," Houston said.

One scenario would be adding funding for the jail during the Legislature's budget-making process that will continue through spring.

"It's too soon to say which way it would go," Houston said. "It's a matter of getting everyone equitably funded."

If the debate sounds familiar, it's because the state and city engaged in a nearly identical jailhouse battle in 2003. That time, Kotzebue closed the 12- to 14-bed jail to state inmates for nearly two years until both sides reached an agreement over reimbursement costs

During the earlier closure, attorneys found it harder to talk with clients, prisoners couldn't meet with Kotzebue-area family members and troopers flew inmates to court dates using a state plane, pilot and trooper time, according to news accounts at the time.

Kotzebue city lawyer Joe Evans estimates that this winter's closure is forcing the Department of Public Safety to spend $20,000 to $25,000 a week to transport state-arrested prisoners to Nome -- a nearly 200-mile flight -- and elsewhere.

"In these two months, DPS will spend $200,000-plus to transport state-arrested prisoners," Evens wrote in an email.

Trooper Capt. Barry Wilson, head of the detachment that includes Kotzebue and 11 surrounding villages, said those estimates seemed high but he couldn't put a price tag on the closure.

"Certainly it's an inconvenience. Certainly it is a wrench in the wheels, if you will, for our general operations that we're having to change how we do business a little bit," Wilson said. "Is it insurmountable? No. We've obviously been doing this for the last month."

The Western Alaska detachment that includes Kotzebue as well as several other rural hubs accounted for more than half of sexual assaults and 28 percent of suicides handled by troopers in 2010, according to the agency's annual report. Troopers in the region routinely fly to villages to make arrests and must escort prisoners to hub communities like Kotzebue where defendants can make their first court appearance.

In Alaska, community jails like the Kotzebue facility are owned and operated by local governments using state funds. Kotzebue officials say some cities receive far more state funding per bed than others, and that Kotzebue lost out on the bulk of a funding increase promised in the state's 2012 spending plan.

The city estimates that it will cost about $1.3 million to operate the Kotzebue jail in fiscal year 2013, said Martin, the city manager. The governor's budget, proposed on Dec. 15, calls for about $944,000 in state funding for the jail, he said.

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