Crime & Courts

Corrections officials say reforms will prevent having to reopen prison farm

The lead researcher for Pew Charitable Trusts working in Alaska to make recommendations for statewide criminal justice reform has repeatedly presented a hypothetical scenario to lawmakers and corrections officials: If nothing is done to reduce the inmate population, the Department of Corrections will need to open a "closed facility" by 2017.

That "closed facility" is the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm. Until early last year, inmates housed there tended vegetables and livestock. Now, a small crew of inmate workers is bused back and forth from the Goose Creek Correctional Center, another jail in the Mat-Su.

DOC does not consider Point MacKenzie closed. The farm "remains fully functional," said spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle. But the 128 beds at the farm aren't being used, which saves $2.5 million.

If no additional reforms are made, those Point MacKenzie beds will be needed, said Terry Schuster, Pew senior associate for the Public Safety Performance Project. But DOC says changes are in the works to prevent that.

Schuster shared this worst-case scenario with a crowd of people who help prisoners readjust to public life during a meeting at the Dena'ina Center in downtown Anchorage last week. He also shared it at a legislative hearing in mid-September and a workshop at this year's Alaska Federation of Natives conference.

"In 2017, the prison population surpasses the state's ability to house them. At that point, the solution for housing would be reopening a facility that has been closed," he said. "By the following year, 2018, the population would have passed that additional capacity, and at that point the easiest solution would be sending inmates out of state."

The price tag associated with shipping out inmates depends on contractual agreements, which would be negotiated if the need arises, said Daigle.

In 2012, when the state's inmates started returning to Alaska due to the opening of Goose Creek, those Outside costs were estimated at about $90 per prisoner per day. At that time, there were 1,050 inmates housed Outside. It would have cost the state $34.7 million each year to pay the agreements, DOC estimated at the time.

Over the next decade, 1,400 prison beds will be needed to meet projected demand. The cost of dusting off the beds at Point MacKenzie and operating the entire facility, along with the cost of Outside housing over 10 years would be at least $169 million, Schuster said.

"That is the cost of doing nothing. That price tag is the continued growth. The state isn't doing nothing. The Legislature, the governor's office and others have identified this as a priority area for examination. The criminal justice commission has been formed (and) has been meeting and developing policy options," Schuster concluded.

Daigle said there currently aren't plans to use the beds or start sending prisoners Outside. She said DOC is looking at ways to reduce the inmate population, including placing those that qualify on electronic monitoring or in a halfway house. But the option recently drew criticism in the Valley.

The inmate population appears to be declining, Daigle said. In January, the number of people filling "hard beds" totaled 5,200. That number is now 4,880. DOC did not elaborate on what caused the decline; they have said the current efforts will prevent extreme measures.

Using Pew's research and data analysis, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission will develop legislative and budgetary recommendations for the 2016 legislative session to be released in December.

Sen. Pete Kelly, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said when Pew gave a presentation to the committee earlier this year, he didn't get enough information to determine whether reusing Point MacKenzie or further measures could be avoided.

However, he said, if the problem is that we have "more people in prison than we need to have in prison," we need to look at how we can get them released, rather than sending them out of state.

An earlier version of this story stated Pew would release its recommendations in December. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission is tasked with making recommendations using Pew's research.