Only ourselves to blame: Reform can't come soon enough to Alaska corrections

Each year, thousands of Alaskans are incarcerated. While some leave the state, most, about 3,500, stay in Alaska jails. And according to a study ordered by the governor and released Nov. 16, that is a very dangerous place to be. While few would assume a jail is a warm and cuddly environment, the idea that the danger might come not from the fellow inmates but from the correction officers themselves is beyond disturbing.

The study found in case after case, inmates had died despite numerous pleas for help, with opportunities abounding to stop the chain of events that ended an inmate's life. In many of these cases, the people in custody were not dangerous felons, but people with problems — drinking, depression, drugs — who crossed the line and wound up in jail. Most of them were not yet sentenced or convicted, but their rights were removed long before a jury had a chance to make that decision.

Perhaps the biggest problem this highlights is what happens when entities are above scrutiny, when they don't have to answer questions from the public or the press, and when reviews are done by a sister agency with close ties.

While those who lost their lives in Alaska's prisons paid the ultimate price, there are surely countless cases where similar neglect and abuse has played out, but not ended in death. Inmates often languish in jail for months before their cases are heard due to overbooked state attorneys and courts. The second you are arrested in Alaska, your rights, despite being presumed innocent, are markedly reduced. Numerous cases of apparent police abuse have come to light recently as well, highlighting a need for more oversight on every corner of the state's program for enforcing our laws.

If that sounds like it's being too hard on law enforcement officers, let's take a step back and think about why we have jails and laws in the first place. We have laws because we want our society to operate a certain way — we want people to live free of fear and violence. We want our property protected. We want people to act responsibly. We want our rights as individuals protected, and we are willing to send those who don't agree out of our society. Hundreds of years ago, we might have shipped them to a faraway island. Today, we lock them up. But the underlying point of that action is to preserve the peace within our society.

Unfortunately, were it not for the badges on these individuals neglecting prisoners, ignoring their pleas for help, for air, for medical attention, in all of the cases highlighted in the recent report, the correctional officers in question would be condemned for their action and inaction by our own laws. Basic human rights were violated, the very rights we aim to protect by having jails in the first place. And that means something in this system we have set up is terribly wrong.

But really, there is no one to blame but ourselves for this situation, because Alaskans created it. We created it by underfunding and undersupporting the men and women who deal with Alaska's incarcerated and arrested day in and day out. There is no question that choosing to be a police officer or corrections officer is a very tough vocation. While the rest of us toodle along largely ignorant of the dark underbelly of life around us, these officers have no such luxury. They come face to face daily with people who commit unthinkable crimes, people who resist arrest, try to hurt them, are belligerent and mean and spit on them. They deal with people too drunk to stand, people too high to converse, people too angry to reason with. They are asked, in the face of that daily barrage, to rise above it and be firm but kind. They are asked to treat these people in a way that is far kinder than they have been treated. That is not something everyone can do, and we need to accept and prepare for that fact.


So how do we create a system to watch when these officers are pushed beyond their limit, when they start to forget that they do not have the right to physically or mentally abuse another human being? The only way to do that is to build in regular, independent oversight. Light needs to be shed on these institutions and the public needs to be involved.

While we are at it, it wouldn't hurt to provide far more support for correctional officers and police in Alaska — shorter shifts, a healthier working environment, and an institutional shift in what we expect of these men and women.

Sure, all of this will cost money, and certainly it will take a lot of work. But without respect for basic human rights, we are perpetuating the violence and hatred from which we seek protection in the first place. If our ultimate goal is a more peaceful, free society, then we must act from that point in all that we do, but especially with those who have yet to understand the importance of that peace. Anything less is wildly hypocritical.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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(at)alaskadispatch.com.