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Could a soon-to-be-closed Alaska prison become a much-needed detox center?

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published September 4, 2016

PALMER — A decade ago, Terria Walters hallucinated and vomited as she detoxed from OxyContin in a jail cell at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.

"It was a horrible experience," Walters said.

Now Walters, a former meth and opioid addict who founded Fallen Up Ministries, hopes to do her part to make sure other addicts in Mat-Su get a better option, including the inmates who make up a third of the detoxing population in Alaska's correctional facilities. 

She's part of a Valley group working toward safe, medically monitored detox for inmates and the general public.

One potential location for detox treatments is another prison: Palmer Correctional Center. An idea in the early stages would repurpose the prison scheduled to close this year as a detox and treatment facility. 

Right now, the idea is in the planning stages only, organizers say. They have no funding, and may need to address local land-use priorities that don't automatically allow rehabilitation facilities.

The push for a detox facility stems from "passion," said Walters, whose son Christopher Seaman was a 23-year-old relapsed heroin addict found murdered last year.

"Passion built on personal tragedy or anger at the current condition of those lives perishing and the lack of resources," she wrote in a message. "We don't want to just talk about the problem, we want to be the solution."

Alaska, like most states, is in the midst of what medical and substance-abuse experts call an opioid epidemic. State health officials logged 36 deaths from heroin overdoses last year.  

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has no detox centers, despite a population of more than 100,000 people grappling with the overdose deaths and rampant property crime that accompanies the opioid epidemic. The only one in Southcentral is the 14-bed Ernie Turner Center in Anchorage. 

The Alaska Department of Corrections announced in July it was closing the prison near Sutton by year's end due to sweeping budget cuts. It housed up to 176 minimum-security inmates, who have been transferred to other facilities. Nearly 300 inmates remain housed, with plans to transfer them out by the year's end.

The state's top Corrections official says the department wants to keep the facility open if possible. Providing detox services would address an unmet need in the community and potentially keep recidivism down, Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said in an interview Friday.

Many addicts detox in jail. Of the roughly 1,500 inmates who complete detox under DOC oversight every year, 28 percent say opiates are their drug of choice, according to agency spokesman Corey Allen-Young. 

"This problem is not going away. These folks are detoxing right now," Williams said. "Those young people and adults are detoxing in jail. We need a better plan than what we have."

The death of 24-year-old Kellsie Green at the Anchorage Correctional Complex in January prompted a series of policy changes, including more monitoring of addicted defendants when they enter the jail, corrections officials say.

Williams said closing Palmer will allow Corrections to add 20 corrections officers at Anchorage as well as additional medical staff, "reinforcing areas where we're a bit weak."

"That's the positive side of this difficult move of deconstructing the Palmer side as we know it right now," he said.

A Mat-Su opioid task force and others toured Palmer Correctional last week to get a sense for how it would work as an opioid detox and treatment campus. The state wouldn't operate the facility, only provide the buildings and maintenance.

The task force's preliminary plans call for a 10-bed detox center with medical supervision, as well as a larger treatment program and transitional services campus that provides employment, transportation and life skills training. Early estimates put the annual operating cost at $1 million.

The group saw the solitary confinement unit but also a general housing unit with "a nice big day room," said Emily Geiger, probation supervisor at the prison. The task force liked some newer, smaller housing units as possible offices.

Walters is trying to get nonprofit status for Fallen Up Ministries so the group could start securing grants to help run the treatment and transition aspect of the campus. A physician would be best to run the detox piece, she said.

There's talk of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center opening a detox and behavioral health center by 2020, though a hospital spokesman didn't return a request for information last week.

In the meantime, Mat-Su has an immediate need for a place for addicts to detox with dignity, in a "supervised, safe and managed" environment for withdrawal, said Michael Carson, task force chair and vice-president and recovery specialist at MyHouse, a Wasilla-based nonprofit that focuses on homeless youth.

"People have died yesterday," Carson said. "There's going to be people dying today and there's going to be people dying tomorrow. We're very excited about (the hospital proposal) but that's three years down the road."

Local land-use regulations in Sutton don't allow what are called rehab facilities without a conditional-use permit process, including public hearings.

"The community of Sutton is especially ill suited to the needs of a community residential center which must be in close proximity to jobs and other facilities to allow residents to lead a semi-autonomous but supervised transition to productive working life," reads the Sutton Comprehensive Plan, a community development guide last amended in 2009. It goes on to state that "some type of treatment facility may be appropriate, with adequate public input and safeguards."

The Sutton Community Council was left out of the prison closure decision and was surprised by the detox proposal and the tour, said council member George Rauscher, who is running for a state House seat.

Sutton isn't immune to the crime that law enforcement links to opioid addiction. A rash of break-ins and yard thefts in the Kings River area prompted new neighborhood watch activities including patrols and security cameras, Rauscher said.

The council doesn't oppose the detox proposal but wants to be involved, he said. A local special-use district, or SpUD, also restricts rehab centers.

"If they're going to do this, it should be in line with our SpUD agreement, it should be in line with our comp plan," Rauscher said. "And they probably need to know we have one."

Carson acknowledged there are "a lot of moving parts that need to be nailed down" including the development of a sustainable business plan and a way to secure Medicaid reimbursement.

He said he invited Rauscher on the tour but word didn't get to him.

The task force is looking for commitments from partners, Carson said, suggesting the University of Alaska Anchorage nursing program as one example.

"This could be a statewide model, it could be a national model but what happens is you need to have a commitment," he said. 

The task force meets monthly. The next meeting is 4 p.m. Tuesday at Wasilla City Hall.

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