A vast new prison facility 30 miles from Wasilla will eventually house all Alaska prisoners now being kept Outside. But questions about the Goose Creek Correctional Center's costs have cast a harsh light on the price of keeping prisoners in Alaska. The state Department of Corrections hopes that the prisoners' way of life at the facility -- and the technology that accompanies new construction -- will justify the price tag of $240 million.
In a media tour on Thursday, Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt said the facility will be unlike any other in Alaska, "a society within a society." The buildings are new, the paint still bright white with doors painted in blue or green, with "CLASSROOM," or "KITCHEN" written in large block letters sideways down the doors. It's a world of metal, cinderblock, linoleum and thick glass.
Most of the 1,536 prisoners the prison will eventually house will be kept in the medium-security general population, free to come and go during the day, pick up their own medicine at the prison's medical station, use the facility's large recreation area (including numerous basketball hoops) in the center of the prison campus, and even check their mail at an assigned post office box.
Schmidt said that a large part of Goose Creek's planning focused on creating a sense of personal responsibility among prisoners. They'll shovel their own snow, mow their own grass. "We want responsibility and accountability," he said.
Ten identical rooms, each housing 128 of these self-dependent prisoners, fill most of a long building on the east side of the campus. There is a total of 435,000 square feet of building space on the prison's 100-acre campus.
Across the courtyard is another building, similar from the outside but more vast and labyrinthian inside. Other prisoners, such as inmates who get in a fight with another inmate, will be kept in punitive segregation in this building, a separate unit with a different daily regimen and significantly fewer freedoms. The worst offenders will be housed in yet another area, under lockdown 23 hours a day, with access only to a confined recreation area and a law library in a small room surrounded by heavy chain-link.
In the same, long building with those most serious offenders, through so many doors (each with their own locks and their own guards) that it's impossible to keep count of them all, are a kitchen, three cafeterias, the "hospital" and visiting areas.
Overlooking it all is the control area, a single room that most closely resembles the "watch towers" that many envision when they think of prisons. But this room, while secure -- it sits outside two 12-foot-high fences spaced 25 feet apart and topped with two layers of razor wire -- is more high-tech than guards on lookout with rifles. It resembles an airport traffic control tower, with several workstations, each stocked with computer monitors.
There are about 800 cameras in the facility. It's impossible to watch them all at once, so every camera's feed is recorded in case it's needed later.
An investment in society or a state budget drain?
Goose Creek was built at a projected cost of $240 million. Construction was completed two months early with $8 million left over because some of the original financing was invested. That money is being used to provide furnishings for the facility and give Corrections money for startup costs. Jerry Neeser, whose company, Neeser Construction, did much of the work on the new facility, has referred to the project as "impeccable" in terms of its budget and completion time.
Despite that, the project has also drawn the ire of lawmakers, who figured out earlier this year that keeping the 1,050 prisoners who are currently out of state at Goose Creek could cost about $34.7 million -- or about $90 per prisoner, per day -- each year. Keeping them out of state would cost about $23 million -- or about $60 per prisoner, per day. That $34.7 million also doesn't include the annual $17.8 million lease payment for the facility itself. At full capacity, operating Goose Creek would cost about about $50 million per year, Schmidt said.
Schmidt said that although that number sounds high, keeping prisoners at the minimum/medium security Palmer Correctional Center runs about $68 per day, per inmate. The maximum security facility at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward costs about $104 per prisoner, per day, Schmidt estimated. That puts it a little closer to costs at the maximum security facility, but Goose Creek can house all kinds of offenders and offers what the DOC hopes are more services geared toward prisoner rehabilitation.
For his part, Commissioner Schmidt said that the prison was never designed to generate revenue. Instead, it aims to offer greater rehabilitation potential for prisoners, who would be locked up closer to family and friends living in Alaska, by providing them with the responsibility and self-reliance -- as well as training programs like plumbing, carpentry and GED classes.
"We've been very straightforward," Schmidt said. "We never promised this to be a money saver."
The prison will take a test group of 30 prisoners beginning in March 2012. Corrections Department officials hope to have all out-of-state prisoners placed in Alaska facilities in 2013.
Correction: This story originally identified the owner of Neeser Construction as Roy Neeser. The owner is Jerry Neeser.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com