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Citing surge of prisoners after SB 91 repeal, Alaska government wants to send inmates Outside

Spring Creek Correctional Center, Seward. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

The Alaska Department of Corrections will seek to send between 250 and 500 inmates to Outside prisons, commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom announced Tuesday.

The department will issue a request for proposals from interested prisons in the next few days, she said. The request will be for a three-year contract with an option to extend, she said in a letter to lawmakers.

“Should a successful bid be awarded, the department hopes to begin transferring inmates in early 2020,” she wrote.

State prisons have seen a surge of inmates since the Alaska Legislature voted to repeal (with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s approval) the criminal justice reform legislation known as Senate Bill 91. According to a written statement by the department, since the bill was signed into law, the state’s prison population has risen by 5%, or 250 people.

Estimates provided to the Alaska Legislature earlier this year indicated the repeal would “increase the number of inmates beyond current capacity by 392.0 inmates in the first year."

As of Tuesday, the state’s prisons contain 4,705 people, up from an average of 4,314 in calendar year 2018.

“We’re at 97% capacity,” Dahlstrom said, explaining the need to send inmates outside.

The Department of Corrections has not yet reopened the Palmer Correctional Center, a prison closed after the passage of SB 91 and the subsequent drop in the prison population. In a written statement, the department said reopening the prison “would have taken at least 12 months to bring online and required an additional 70 correctional officers be hired.”

The medium-security area at Palmer Correctional Center, on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

For that reason, the department is seeking to send inmates away. The department expects to send only sentenced inmates with at least seven years remaining on their sentences.

“I’m not sure who’s going to respond,” Dahlstrom said when asked whether inmates could end up in private prisons.

In planning to ship Alaska inmates to out-of-state prisons, Alaska is going back to the future.

Less than a decade ago, up to 1,000 Alaska inmates were doing time in private prisons in Arizona and Colorado, according to Daily News coverage from the time.

Critics of the practice have said it isolates Alaska inmates from their families and communities, making the already-tough task of re-entry after a sentence is over even more difficult, and deepens the influence of violent prison gangs.

In 2010, Alaska incarcerated about a third of its prison population in private facilities, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Alaska built the $240 million Goose Creek Correctional Center in part to bring prisoners housed out of state back home. Prisoners began returning to Alaska in 2012.

Dahlstrom said this time bidders will be required to offer more therapy, addiction treatment and vocational programs and activities in facilities.

“In previous years, inmates sent out of state, they didn’t have opportunities for quality programming,” she said.

In February, Dunleavy’s budget proposal involved sending at least 500 inmates out of state and closing a Kenai prison, but lawmakers opposed that proposal. Dahlstrom said no prison will be closed and no workers laid off as a result of the new plan.

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