A Southcentral Alaska prison that was closed for about five years will reopen Monday after a nearly $17 million renovation project, corrections officials said.
The reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center in Sutton will add about 300 beds to the state’s current prison capacity of about 5,200, Alaska Public Media reported Wednesday. The prison was closed in 2016 because of a declining inmate population and in an effort to restructure costs.
Criminal justice reform advocates expressed concern about the timing of the reopening and what it says about the overall direction of Alaska’s justice system, with prison populations continuing to increase.
“More beds does not make us safer,” said Megan Edge, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
The number of people incarcerated in Alaska increased over the last two years until it fell during the pandemic. It’s currently operating at about 95% capacity.
Edge said it will only be a matter of time before the reopened Palmer facility is at capacity. She said a more humane and cost-effective option would be to move people to parole and other reentry programs.
“The solution is to lower the prison population,” she said. “It is not to just keep building more warehouses -- the solution is to decarcerate, get people rehabilitated and out of jail.”
The renovated prison will be divided into medium- and minimum-security wings. It will house people serving sentences and those awaiting sentencing.
Palmer Correctional Co-Superintendent Deirdre Banachowicz said overall, the facility is more desirable for incarcerated people than others where she has worked.
“Each one of the rooms has windows in it, which is kind of unlike other facilities. You have beautiful mountain views. It’s just a different environment in general,” she said. “And I think it’s very conducive to rehabilitation.”
She said the rooms are dormitory-styled housing, with a large outdoor recreation areas on the minimum-security side and a gym on the other side.
“It’s hard to call them cells,” she said.
The state estimates it will cost about $15 million a year to operate the prison.
Edge said that money would be better spent on services to help people leaving prison to find good jobs and provide better mental health care. The state found in 2019 that it costs about $60,000 a year to house each inmate.
“The reality of that is, taxpayers really carry that burden,” Edge said. “And it shouldn’t just be about money. The reality is when you incarcerate one person in a family, the likelihood that other people in that family also go to jail also goes up.”
A union leader also expressed concern about what the prison’s reopening may mean for understaffed corrections officers who he said already work mandatory overtime and are called to work on their days off.
“It’s insanity, really, to take staff away from institutions that are already compromising the safety of their staff and the inmates that they’re caring for to ramp up and open a new facility,” Randy McLellan, president of Alaska Correctional Officers Association, told Alaska Public Media.
The prison system has experienced an exodus of workers since the beginning of the year, but McLellan said corrections officers were hit hard since they were already overworked before the pandemic. The Department of Corrections said 1 in 10 corrections officer positions are unfilled, and McLellan said that could force prisons to operate to fewer officers.
“Jails don’t ever shut down -- you’ve got people under your care that need it 24/7. So what you do is you operate with less security staff. That creates an incredibly unsafe situation in the facility,” he said.
Banachowicz and the prison’s other co-superintendent, Jason Hamilton, called that concern unfounded.
They said through staff transfers and new recruits, they do not anticipate difficulty in hiring the 106 officers needed to operate the reopened prison at full capacity by October. The state is offering a $5,000 signing bonus to entice applicants.