Leaders must address low morale as part of Alaska corrections reform

Last week I described how the Alaska Department of Corrections was broken. I saw it firsthand over the course of my 11-year career. However, one small step can go a long way to improve the department dramatically: mending broken officer morale.

One of the principal challenges in making changes in the Department of Corrections is that very few people understand the day-to-day operation of a correctional facility and, frankly, they don't care. To the public, the sign of a successful correctional facility is that they never hear anything about it.

For the most part, that's an accurate statement.

However, inside the institutions of the DOC lives a dynamic and unique set of problems that would make most people who have never even considered walking into a jail or prison squeamish. The men and women who work in correctional facilities are tasked with ensuring the rights and needs of a population that, at the very least dislikes them, and in some cases seeks to cause them serious physical harm.

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When correctional officers tell people what they do for a living, it is generally met with a look of disappointment or surprise and a million questions that officers have had to answer thousands of times throughout their careers.

My favorite question asked over the years (and one of the most common) was, "You're not in there with the inmates though, right?"

That question, and similar questions, illustrate the severe lack of understanding the public has of our correctional system -- a lack of understanding that makes it very easy for correctional leadership, from the institutional level all the way to the commissioner, to act with very little worry of repercussion.


Lord John Dalberg-Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." While that statement might be a bit strong when speaking about the leaders in Alaska's correctional system, it's not far off. When public leaders can make decisions largely without the fear of public reprisal, they tend to believe they can do whatever they want -- speaking out against them can be very dangerous for one's career.

This type of poor leadership leads to one of two usual outcomes -- abuse of inmates, or low morale of line-level staff due to understaffing, mandatory overtime, lack of training and equipment as well as other issues creating poor working conditions.

The former can be witnessed in Arizona at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tent city and the "gladiator days" fights at Corcoran State Prison, when staff would release rival prisoners from their cells.

We have seen a lot of the latter in Alaska. The staff on the front lines in Alaska's prisons has been forced to work 16-hour shifts, work in modules with 110 prisoners or more and supervise multiple housing units by themselves, a task dangerous not only for staff, but for inmates.

Officers have been assaulted only to see the offenders never receive a new charge or any real support from their management. These types of transgressions happened mostly under former commissioners and governors; however, they remain common.

Change must start at the top, which does not bode well for Alaska's current correctional officers. As I wrote last week, new Commissioner Dean Williams has already shown his propensity to publicly shame correctional officers without having all of the pertinent information or the institutional knowledge necessary to understand the complexities inherent in various on-the-job scenarios.

Officer morale was at an all-time low under former Commissioner Joe Schmidt. Many were excited and encouraged when Gov. Bill Walker was elected, and many of us believed for sure that steps would be taken to improve morale.

Instead, it was just the opposite.

Actions already taken by this administration make it very clear that correctional officers have no support from their leadership -- a crucial component to improving morale within the department.

COs rarely ask for much. They belong to the union -- Alaska Correctional Officers Association -- that once offered a contract with no additional contractual pay increases for three years. The biggest thing they want is to feel support from their superiors. Something I can tell you, from firsthand experience, does not currently exist.

Working in corrections is one of those jobs that few want and most people don't even want to think about. Officers have been physically attacked, bitten, spit on, had urine and feces thrown on them, struggled to subdue violent felons. Many times they have to do all of this in a mist of pepper spray and covered in blood. They do this with no fanfare or public recognition. At the end of the day they ask very little, just some support from those in the upper echelon of the department.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former University of Alaska Anchorage student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late-90s. Email him at michaeldingman@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Mike Dingman

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s.