Twenty-two members of the 40-person Alaska House of Representatives expressed “grave concern” about plans to send inmates to Outside prisons in a letter to the Department of Corrections commissioner.
The group, which includes Republicans, Democrats and independents, wrote that they “strongly oppose” the decision, saying it “openly defies” the Legislature’s effort to keep Alaska prisoners in state by appropriating funds to reopen a prison in Palmer.
But action to actually stop the Department of Corrections plan will not happen before the program begins, several lawmakers said. According to a request for proposals, the department expects to begin sending inmates away before Christmas, pending bids from interested prisons.
“There’s probably no short-term solution, which I guess is the sad thing,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, who signed the letter.
No lawmakers have expressed support for addressing the topic of prison overcrowding in a special session, which means the department is free to act, at least until the next regular session in January.
“Unfortunately, since we’re not in session, it doesn’t give us an opportunity to hold hearings on this before it does happen,” Tarr said. “I hope we use the budget process next session to come up with a better long-term solution.”
Earlier this month, Department of Corrections commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said the state’s prisons are nearing capacity, and there is not enough time to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center. She said shipping inmates out of state is the only available option to avoid overcrowding that would threaten the safety of guards and inmates.
Sarah Gallagher, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, said the agency has received the letter but has not yet responded.
According to figures provided by Dahlstrom, the state’s prison population is up 5% since legislators passed House Bill 49, which significantly increased prison terms for most crimes in the state. HB 49 was an effort to repeal and replace the criminal justice reform law known as Senate Bill 91.
Tarr and all but two other signers of the prison letter also voted in favor of HB 49.
Lawmakers knew at the time that the bill would overfill the state’s prisons, but Tarr and others said there was an expectation that the state would first reopen the Palmer Correctional Center. Legislators inserted $17 million into the state’s capital budget to do so.
The Department of Corrections said recently that reopening the Palmer prison would take at least one year. But for reasons that remain unclear, the department failed to start the process when legislators provided funding. The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced Thursday that it has launched a public-records investigation.
In the meantime, the department is rapidly running out of space for prisoners. Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said Fairbanks inmates are being housed in a gymnasium. In Juneau, radio station KTOO-FM reported 18 beds have been moved into a prison hobby shop.
“While the rest of the country is going toward ‘we can’t put everybody in jail,’ we’ve turned back the clock. We’re putting everybody back in jail,” said Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, who did not sign the letter of complaint.
Asked why she did not sign the letter, Johnston said, “We’re going to have so many battles again this year. I just want to pick my battles."
Lawmakers generally agree that rehabilitation chances are worse for prisoners sent Outside, which is why the state ended the practice in the 2000s and built Goose Creek prison for $240 million. When another prison was needed, the cost of Goose Creek’s construction encouraged lawmakers to pass SB 91.
Public concern over high crime rates caused lawmakers to repeal most of SB 91, reviving the prison population problem.
This year, members of the House approved budget language requiring the Palmer prison to be reopened, but the Senate removed that requirement and it was never restored.
“There was definitely wide bipartisan interest in preventing the transfer of these prisoners,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a signer of the letter. “There’s real frustration about this.”
Observing from the opposite side of the Legislature, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he agrees with Tarr that there is “not yet” enough legislative support to block the shipping of prisoners Outside.
Coghill was the principal legislative author of SB 91 and said the prison issue is a direct result of Alaskans’ unhappiness with “the way we’re handling crime issues.”
The Palmer prison is in the legislative district of Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton. Rauscher said he’s still reviewing the state’s proposal for shipping inmates Outside and “can’t say one way or another” if he approves. He said he would prefer the Palmer prison become a rehabilitation and job training center for inmates returning to public society.
A member of the House minority, Rauscher was not asked to sign the letter of complaint, but he believes prison overcrowding is “going to become a topic” in the next legislative session.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, is a House minority member on the House Finance Committee and agreed that the topic will come up again. He wasn’t asked to sign the letter, and said he doesn’t see an easy way out for Alaska.
Imprisoning Alaskans out of state is likely cheaper in the short term, Carpenter said, but if the practice makes rehabilitation less likely, it may be more expensive in the long run.
“I would prefer to have the prisoners stay in state. Our problems should stay our problems," Carpenter said. "But I don’t see an alternative.”