Lemon Creek Correctional Center pictured on April 13, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Lemon Creek Correctional Center pictured on April 13, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Bipartisan group of Alaska lawmakers urge DOC to keep prisoners in state

Lawmakers send letter to DOC commissioner urging reconsideration

In response to the Department of Correction’s plan to send Alaskan prisoners to be housed out of state, a bipartisan group of state representatives sent a letter to the department’s commissioner Wednesday expressing their concerns with the proposal.

Twenty-three state lawmakers signed the letter to DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom listing a number of issues with the plan.

“Like many Alaskans, we strongly oppose this decision,” the letter says. It goes on to say that the decision “defies the legislature’s appropriation authority by rejecting our action earlier this year to keep Alaskans in-state by reopening the Palmer Correctional Center.”

In June the Alaska Legislature voted 26-to-6 to reject sending prisoners out of state and instead reopen the Palmer facility which had been closed in 2016 because of funding.

“The House approved $16 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to be used strictly for the purpose of reopening the PCC,” the letter says.

Dahlstrom announced on Oct. 15 the department would be looking at sending prisoners out of state, saying that Alaska’s prisons were currently at 97 percent capacity. The state’s prison population had risen significantly following the passage of House Bill 49, a crime bill which repealed a series of criminal justice reforms and instituted harsher penalties.

Wednesday morning, DOC released a request for proposal (RFP) document outlining the conditions a facility must meet if the state were to send its prisoners there.

“The prison facility and services to accommodate an inmate population of up to 500 male multi-custody level prisoners, with expansion potential to 750 or more,” the RFP says.

Of the concerns raised with sending prisoners out of state, Alaskan prisoners being exposed to prison gangs in the Lower 48 and eventually bringing those criminal connections back was a factor in the Legislature’s June decision.

In May, several members of a white supremacist gang were arrested by federal authorities on multiple counts including murder and kidnapping. It was determined the gang had been founded by Alaska inmates being housed in Colorado and Arizona.

However, the RFP states that Alaska prisoners are not to interact with the inmates from other states, unless pre-approved by the state Director of Institutions.

“Prisoners from other jurisdictions shall have absolutely no direct contact with Alaskan prisoners without written permission of the Director of Institutions,” the RFP says. “Co-mingling of prisoners from other jurisdictions or other contracts can be allowed upon written approval by the Alaska Director of Institutions who will give special consideration on a case-by case basis.”

The RFP also says the prison must offer rehabilitative and education services to inmates. In the press conference on Oct. 15, Dahlstrom said a “comparable level of services” to those found in Alaska prisons must be offered in order to contract with the state.

The RFP also states that videoconferencing equipment must be provided for court and parole hearings, as well as family visitations.

In their letter to DOC, the state legislators urge Dahlstrom to reverse her decision to send prisoners out of state and to begin the process of reopening the Palmer facility.

The Legislature, the letter says, appropriated “money to keep prisoners housed in Alaska facilities, staffed and operated by Alaskans, with culturally appropriate programs proven to reduce recidivism and future crime.”

The Department of Corrections could not be immediately reached for comment.

Both Juneau’s state representatives Sara Hannan and Andi Story, both Democrats, signed the letter.

“We need to keep our incarcerated citizens in the state, closer to their families,” Story told the Empire by phone Wednesday. “We need to spend the state’s dollars in the state.”

Story said that keeping prisoners in close contact with their families was shown to have a positive impact on re-entry and recidivism.

“And that’s worth a lot,” she said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

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