Crime & Justice

With more Alaska women incarcerated than ever, some moved to men's jail

The number of women incarcerated in Alaska is at an all-time high, with the sole women's prison in the state overcrowded enough that the Department of Corrections is now housing female inmates at Anchorage's jail for men.

Since 2014, the DOC has been trying to free up space at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River by transferring inmates to a housing unit that has been set aside for females at the previously all-male Anchorage jail.

Thirty-one women were being held in the women's mod at the Anchorage Correctional Complex as of Jan. 5.

Most were unsentenced, pre-trial detainees.

While jails are still overwhelmingly filled with men in Alaska and nationally, the share of female inmates is rising. Ten years ago, women made up less than 8 percent of Alaska's prison population, according to the DOC. Today, almost 12 percent of Alaska inmates are women.

On Jan. 5, 581 female prisoners were in custody statewide, a high, said Sherrie Daigle, a DOC public information officer.

Nationally, the rise in incarceration of women is linked in part to harsher penalties for drug and property offenses, which have "always been the most common offenses women are incarcerated for," said Ron Everett, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.

"The severity of the punishment has increased," he said.

An offender profile published in 2014 by the Department of Corrections offers a window into why women end up in jail in Alaska.

Women were most likely to be serving time for probation violations, drug offenses, DUI and theft, the data shows.

In Alaska, women accounted for about 21 percent of the people in jail for drug offenses.

By comparison, women made up only 9 percent of those jailed for violent crimes and robberies and just 1 percent of inmates charged with sex crimes.

Probation violations are another common pathway to jail time for women, Everett said.

"They get in a little trouble and get put on probation, then violate probation and are more likely to end up (incarcerated) in an institution."

The Department of Corrections faces difficult questions about how to manage future projected growth of the female prisoner population.

Daigle, the DOC spokeswoman, declined to discuss long-term plans for accommodating more women in jails or say whether the housing of women at the Anchorage jail is permanent.

"It is too soon in the budgetary process for the department to discuss long-term plans or changes to any of our institutions," she said.

With fiscal constraints looming, leaders may look to lowering recidivism rates and finding ways to treat the drug and alcohol addictions at the root of many of the crimes that put women behind bars, Everett said.