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Alaska Department of Corrections has room for improvement, audit finds

A yearlong, legislatively mandated performance review of the Alaska Department of Corrections found that the agency is "moderately effective" when conducting its primary functions of confining inmates in jails and supervising them on release.

But the same review also identified systemic problems within the organization, including "significant omissions that could affect the quality" of inmate health care and an inadequate system for reviewing in-custody deaths.

The results of the audit come in the midst of a major upending of the department's top leadership under the administration of new Gov. Bill Walker, and at the end of a year in which the DOC found itself under intense scrutiny for the way it handled a string of inmate deaths during the spring and summer.

The $320,000 audit, compiled by Sacramento-based firm CGL, is the first fruit of a 2013 state law that mandates an exhaustive performance and budgetary audit of every state department at least once per decade. The Department of Corrections was the first agency picked to get an audit under the new law.

Meanwhile, the recent tumult in DOC leadership has yet to fully settle.

Longtime corrections commissioner Joe Schmidt and director of institutions Bryan Brandenburg were both dismissed by the incoming Walker administration, leaving the two top positions in the agency unfilled.

Ron Taylor, the former deputy commissioner of re-entry, is acting as commissioner but no permanent appointment has been announced, DOC spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle said Monday. Dean Marshall, the former superintendent of Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, is acting as director of institutions, she said.

The audit analyzed the department's performance on every major function, from safety to quality of educational programming for inmates.

Many of the findings are neutral or positive, with particular praise going toward re-entry programming and other opportunities available to help inmates kick addictions, learn a trade and stay out of jail.

But the report suggests there's plenty of room for improvement.

The Legislative and Budget Audit Committee extended the scope of the audit after the project had already started in the spring, paying an additional $23,000 for the company to take a deep look at the quality of inmate health care, said Laura Pierre, the chief of staff for committee chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River.

At the time, public outcry over inmate deaths was simmering, culminating in a public hearing in July in which legislators and family members of inmates who had died while being held at DOC facilities demanded answers from corrections officials.

"That was kind of coming to a head when this performance review was taking place," Pierre said. " The committee thought it would be a good idea to have (the reviewers) dig more into the health care being provided to inmates."

Committee members seemed satisfied with the findings on inmate health care, Pierre said.

"There was nothing really, oh my gosh, they are really dropping the ball and inmates are dying because of it," she said.

Overall, the report said, the department meets national guidelines for providing inmate health care, despite having a far-flung prisoner population.

"We were impressed with the professionalism and the flexibility of the leadership team and staff," the report said. "They are providing an extraordinary range of services, despite having minimal staffing resources."

But there are also troubling gaps in health care policies, the authors said.

"We noted significant issues and omissions in these policies that do have an impact on the quality of health care provided," CGL senior vice-president Karl Becker wrote in the report.

The problems identified included poorly defined procedures for medical screenings upon intake into the busiest jails, when sick inmates are particularly vulnerable. Several of the in-custody deaths this year happened hours after those prisoners who died were booked into the facility. Reviewers called for more defined policy in other areas, including sick calls and scheduled off-site doctor appointments, and encouraged the DOC to create a health care "quality improvement" plan, a "standard feature in most correctional health care systems."

The report also says the department lacks a mechanism to deeply review in-custody deaths with an eye toward what might have gone wrong and how to fix it in the future. Auditors recommended any future mortality review policy answer the question, "Was an opportunity to intervene overlooked?"

The department responded that it recognizes some of its health care policies "are outdated."

"We are in the process of reviewing and evaluating those that can be updated, which may result in improvements in health care services," said spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle.

Among other findings in the report:

• Key security policies are outdated, with some unchanged in 30 years.

• The DOC doesn't track inmate or public grievances well enough.

• Staffing is "functional, but minimal" in most jails. The exception is Goose Creek Correctional Center, which the report says has an "appropriate, well-deployed" staff.

• While security around keys in prisons is high, the department has poor control of potentially dangerous work tools used at its facilities.

• Aging buildings show "substantial stress" and will need renovation to operate safely in the future.

The full 180-page DOC performance review is available online at http://legaudit.akleg.gov/performance-reviews/

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