State plan could put prisoners to work in Unalaska seafood plants

If local officials agree, prisoners can finish their sentences working in seafood plants in Unalaska, according to a plan presented by Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams at a recent Unalaska City Council meeting, attended by many generally supportive community members.

Williams said local support is needed for the Transitions to Work program, so the Unalaska Department of Public Safety can provide electronic monitoring while the inmates are living in workplace bunkhouses during the last six months of their sentences, and said the state will provide funding for the project involving about five prisoners, he said.

In other places, the inmates return to prison at the end of the workday, but that's when there are state corrections facilities within commuting distance, which is not the case in Unalaska and other remote sites, Williams said.

Williams said the seafood industry needs the skills learned in prison, including carpentry, welding, refrigeration, and heating and air conditioning. "We do a lot of training behind the walls," he said.

Council members and other local residents wanted to know what crimes were involved, and were especially fearful of sex offenders, citing the recent rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Kotzebue in September.

Williams said the offenses would primarily have involved drugs, reflecting the crisis of addictive opioids. The strongest opposition came from City Councilor David Gregory, saying the police department is still understaffed. "Bad people are able to find other bad people and do bad things," he said.

Representatives of two nonprofit organizations supported the work release plan, saying they have services that could help the inmates. Rachelle Hatfield of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Adult Basic Education program, which helps with high school equivalency degrees, and Janis Krukoff of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, said APIA's local mental health program is available for counseling.


City Councilor Roger Rowland was "cautiously optimistic" about the program, emphasizing that he wants Unalaska to remain a very safe community for young women. Williams' presentation on the proposed Transitions to Work program was well-publicized by city staff with posters around the community.

Williams said Alaska has the nation's highest recidivism rate, with many released prisoners re-offending within six months, and getting locked up again. The biggest reasons for the failure to rehabilitate, he said, are an inability to find housing or work upon release. Job prospects are grim for convicted felons on the outside, and gaining a good work record helps get them on the right track, he said.

If the inmates violate their terms while working, then they go right back into custody, facing new charges. The inmates will be carefully selected and motivated to do a good job since they don't want to return to prison, he said.

If Unalaska doesn't want the responsibility, that's not a problem, and if the program gets started but becomes unwanted, the city can just tell the corrections department's it's not interested anymore, and it will end with no hard feelings, Williams said.

Williams said one Unalaska plant is already interested, and said during the summer he traveled to Akutan to discuss the program with Trident Seafoods.

Unalaska Department of Public Safety Acting Director Jennifer Shockley said she supports the program, especially since if there's a violation, the corrections department simply comes and gets the inmates, sparing local police from resources involved in an investigation.

Williams said the police department is already supervising eight felons on probation in Unalaska, and that the primary reason for his visit is a new requirement that the state do more to supervise prisoners who have completed their sentences behind bars, and have been released on probation back home in remote communities.

Williams also wondered how much is really known about all the people already working in the seafood plants, who come from all over the United States and Asia and South America, and while he understands the need for hiring from great distances, he said the fishing industry should help Alaskans in need.

The recognition of Alaska seafood plants as ideal halfway houses was the subject of a book published about 20 years ago by former Unalaska resident Kwasi Malezi, providing a list of company contacts for finding a job in a supervised and structured residential work environment.

Williams said work release is widely practiced throughout the nation, citing firefighting crews of inmates battling wild fires for up to two years while still in custody.

Mayor Frank Kelty urged Williams to continue working out the details, and come back to the city council with a final plan in November. Kelty said safety would be aided by the seafood plants since they have security personnel who would surely know which employees were in the work release program. Williams said it's up to the inmates if they want to tell fellow workers about their circumstances.

This article originally appeared in the Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.